Oslo: Vigeland Sculpture Park and the Museum of Oslo

Located inside Oslo’s Frogner Park, Vigeland Sculpture Park contains over 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, ranging from the mundane (father and child playing) to the truly bizarre (man fending off attacking babies, my personal favourite piece, as seen above). It is free to visit, and is located a short tram ride away from the centre of Oslo. It is also apparently open 24/7, but I dunno if I’d want to go there at night. Some of those babies were creepy enough in broad daylight.


There is actually a Vigeland Museum near the sculpture park where you can learn more about Vigeland’s life, and though I was certainly intrigued after seeing the sculptures, we ultimately decided to give it a miss in favour of some other museums. There isn’t really any information about the sculptures within the park itself, but after doing virtually no research about Vigeland and his life, I think I can still reasonably conclude just from looking at the sculpture park that he was fascinated by the human form, particularly the male human form. There are a lot of penises (penii?) on show.


I guess there isn’t really much to do here other than walk around and look at all the sculptures, but because they are so hella weird, it is well worth the effort. It is apparently Oslo’s top tourist attraction, and it was fairly busy even in the morning, so it might be wise to get here early if you want to be able to take photos without having to dodge all the people trying to imitate the people in the sculptures (which they do admittedly invite, as you can see I’m guilty of doing it too). 4/5.

Because there isn’t a lot to really say about the sculptures without learning more about Vigeland himself (I’ve got a lot of Oslo posts to churn out, so that’s not going to happen right now), other than that they are pleasingly odd (I do hope the woman above is hugging a pangolin rather than some sort of crustacean, but it was hard to tell. I would happily hug a pangolin, but would run screaming in extreme terror from any kind of giant crustacean. I have nightmares about that sort of thing), I am going to talk about the Museum of Oslo as well, as it is also located in Frogner Park (it’s a big park).


Admission to the Museum of Oslo is 90 kr (£9), but it was included in the Oslo Pass. I don’t think I would have paid to see it otherwise, since it was fairly small compared to other city museums I’ve been to, but we were pretty much the only visitors, which was nice after the noise of the park (the cafe was fairly busy though, probably because it was such an attractive building).

Almost everything in the ground floor level of the museum was translated into English, but almost nothing upstairs was – it’s like the translator ran out of steam halfway through. My favourite part of the museum was downstairs anyway, and was the display on Oslo in the 1970s. Why the 1970s? I don’t know, but it had that great toilet poster shown above (sadly not available in the gift shop), and a selection of wigs for dressing up (clothing too, but that was all child sized). They were also playing disco music, so you could boogie down in front of the projector screen with the other dancers (I forced Marcus to do the hustle with me against his will, but I don’t really know how to do the hustle, so we basically just bumped butts).


The rest of the downstairs section of the museum contained the history of Oslo (or Christiania as it was called until 1925) from roughly the Viking age to the early 20th century, with a skeleton and a few mildly interactive bits, including a hopscotch grid drawn out on the floor. The upstairs part looked a bit more fun, but unfortunately almost nothing here was in English. As far as I can tell, this contained the history of Oslo (properly Oslo) from the 20th century onward, with information about each of its districts, and quotes from people who lived in each one.

The upstairs also had a whole room full of creepy puppets that I think were from some children’s TV show, and you know I love a creepy puppet. I wish I could have actually learned something about them, but this section was only in Norwegian.

The final gallery of the museum contained a few mock-ups of kitchens through the ages, and then a temporary exhibition on pets, which again, had nothing in English, though I did enjoy the comfy stools scattered throughout, coated in very soft faux (I hope) fur. Overall, the museum was pleasant enough, and I enjoyed trying on the wigs (my head did itch afterwards, but no sign of lice yet, so I think it’s fine), but the lack of English in some of the galleries meant I didn’t get as much out of it as I perhaps could have. I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way for this one – I suspect the Vigeland Museum might be the better bet if you’re in the Sculpture Park anyway, but as I haven’t been, I can’t say for sure. 2.5/5.


Oslo: The Viking Ship Museum and the Historical Museum

The other museum on Museum Peninsula (properly called Bygdøy) that was keeping me from my much-needed dinner was the Viking Ship Museum (actually, there are even more museums on the peninsula, including the Maritime Museum, but three ship museums was probably enough for one day). To be honest, I wasn’t that bothered about seeing the Viking Ship Museum, having already seen Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, and not being super interested in the Vikings at the best of times, and certainly not when I was tired, hangry, and pissed off about missing lefse, but Marcus wanted to see it, and I thought we might as well go when we were already on Museum Peninsula rather than having to make a special trip back.


Admission to the museum is 100 kr (or free with the Oslo Pass), and includes a ticket to the Historical Museum that is valid for 48 hours (confusingly, both the Viking Ship Museum and the Historical Museum are run by the Cultural History Museum, which is apparently not the same thing as the Norwegian Cultural History Museum, aka the Folkemuseum). Like almost every museum in Oslo, the Viking Ship Museum will eventually be moving to a new site, but that isn’t happening until 2025, and the museum is still fully open at its current site. It looks like the new museum will try to give a comprehensive history of the Viking Age, whilst the current museum is pretty much just about the ships. And despite the singular in the name, it is ships plural – three of them.


I was so past being done at this point that I basically walked around all the ships, and then sat down whilst Marcus took photos (as seen above). Other than the ships, the museum had some Viking artefacts in it, and it looked nicely laid out and labelled in English, albeit not terribly interactive. Although the ships here are in a much better state of preservation than the ones in Roskilde, Roskilde’s Vikingeskibsmuseet was definitely more fun, what with the dressing up and ship rides on offer. Since I only gave Roskilde 2.5/5, the Viking Ship Museum will have to be 2/5.


We also went (on a different day, thankfully!) to the Historical Museum, which is (you guessed it!) currently undergoing renovations (as you might be able to tell from the false façade stuck on the front), so only a small portion is currently open to the public. This included a temporary exhibition called “Collapse: Human Beings in an Unpredictable World,” a gallery on the Sami, and another on the Vikings, called VIKINGR.  From its name, I assumed “Collapse” would be mainly about climate change and ecological collapse, and there was some of that, but it seemed more like a general ethnographic exhibit, with a lot of artefacts from Oceania.


The Sami gallery was interesting, but fairly similar to what we’d seen at the Folkemuseum. At least everything here had an English translation, unlike the other ethnographic gallery about the native peoples of the Americas. However, I could see this sort of thing any time at the British Museum, so I wasn’t all that put out by not being able to read it.


Finally, there was VIKINGR, which was clearly redone relatively recently, and had a rather spartan feel, with loads of plain glass cases stuck in the middle of a somewhat bare room. The Cultural History Museum is known for having the only intact Viking helmet in the world, as seen above, which I guess is cool, but it’s just a helmet much like other helmets I’ve seen. The rest of the exhibition mainly consisted of swords and jewellery, with a skull or two thrown in. Eventually, this collection will be moved over to the new Viking Age Museum along with the Viking ships, which is perhaps why they didn’t appear to have spent much money doing up the space it’s in now.


In conjunction with VIKINGR, there was a small display of contemporary art inspired by the Vikings, primarily using the theme of migration (not so much the raping and pillaging). This was probably the most enjoyable part of the museum for me – I really liked all those silhouetted heads (sil-you-ette, as Bert the chimney sweep would say), which you were encouraged to move back and forth by their wooden dowels. There was also a collage, and the mysterious upside-down “Visas and Green Cards” neon sign (there was definitely more of an explanation on the label, but I can’t remember what it was).


I would not have paid to see this museum in its current, much downgraded state (the building is clearly huge and gorgeous, but only a fraction of it is currently being utilised due to the renovations), but it was free with the Oslo Pass and included with the Viking Ship Museum ticket, and it helped us to escape a torrential downpour (and had lockers to put our bags in, since we were headed to the bus station immediately after. Yes, bus. The train lines to Gothenburg were all down, so we had the fun of a four hour bus ride there instead. Not ideal for someone who gets motion sickness as badly as I do, since all I could do was stare out the window trying not to puke. In retrospect, we probably should have researched this trip better). 1.5/5 in its current state. By the way, please don’t think this is the end of Oslo – I’m skipping around a bit because both these museums had a Viking theme, so it made sense to combine them – there’s still lots more to come!

Oslo: Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History)

I was already kind of museumed out for the day after leaving the Kon-Tiki Museum, even though I enjoyed that and the Fram Museum (especially the Fram Museum), so too bad for me there was more on Museum Peninsula (properly called Bygdøy) to see that we wouldn’t have time for any other day (well, we probably could have squeezed it in, I just couldn’t be bothered to go back to Bygdøy). One of these things was Norsk Folkemuseum, an open air museum. You could definitely walk from the maritime museum area to this part of the peninsula (and they both have their own ports, if you take the boat over from the centre of town), but at this point in the day, the bus felt like the only sensible option. Of course, the bus took us promptly to a bus depot where we had to change buses and head back in the other direction, but it was still better than walking.


The Folkemuseum costs 160 kr (about £16), but like everything else in Oslo, is free with the Oslo Pass. A word of warning: if you think you might like to partake of any of the food for sale inside, either bring cash or buy tickets in the shop when you arrive. One of the reasons I wanted to go here is because they make lefse (pancakes made with a potato dough) in the traditional manner, over an open fire, and I very much wanted to eat some (lefse are super hard to find anywhere else in Oslo, because I suspect they’re the kind of thing people just make at home. I had one when visiting the Norway section of EPCOT as a kid, and it has always stuck with me. (The Norway village in general was the best part of the little international zone. I loved that ride with the trolls, which I suspect they’ve gotten rid of at some point in the last 20+ years.) I’ve made them myself a couple times, and they’re pretty good, but I wanted to try an authentic Norwegian one whilst I was here). Unfortunately for me, we realised when we got inside that they only took cash payments or tickets, and since Norway is pretty much a cashless society everywhere else, we had never bothered to withdraw any and hadn’t seen any signs about the lefse when we came in. If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have gone back to the shop and bought a ticket, but it was really far away, and I was exhausted, so I didn’t get the lefse (which looked delicious). Don’t be like me, is what I’m saying.


(I told you there’d be more photos of me pretending to poop. Bonus of Marcus pretending to poop as well.) Other than the fact that Skansen did accept card payments for food (and had ice cream stands out front), the Folkemuseum felt very much like Skansen, Stockholm’s open air museum (Skansen is the world’s first open air museum, so I suppose everything else is an imitation). It was big, full of traditional Scandi buildings, many of which weren’t actually open to the public (you could look, you just couldn’t go inside), including a Sami village, and had a museum inside in addition to the open air stuff. However, unlike Skansen, it had very few animals (or at least, very few animals that we could find. We could definitely smell animal poop, but we only found some rabbits and chickens. Not really on the same level as moose and bears), and limited food options inside the park (actually none whatsoever unless you had cash or pre-paid tickets, which made for a very cranky Jessica, as you can probably tell from my face in front of the stave church at the start of the post).


Even though I was rapidly losing the will to live at this point in the day, we headed straight for the museum in the main square. This was a big museum. I totally skipped the section on religious art (even though I quite like Scandinavian religious art, because it is dark and creepy and has lots of demons in it) which still left folk costumes, traditional art, and weaponry. Only some of the labels had been translated into English, so it wasn’t too much to read, but even this was more than I was willing to skim over at this point, so I basically just walked around and looked at things. I did like the section on Nordic jumpers, but why are they all so expensive to buy?! I am not paying £300 for a jumper.


Back outside, we walked through a village of craftspeople, where you could actually buy the wares (but I didn’t go inside most of the buildings, because I was tired and assumed the wares would be expensive) and finally those chickens, ducks, and a barn full of rabbits, which were the only animals in sight. Apparently the animals are only outside at certain times, and most of the barns are kept closed off the rest of the time. There are also various activities you can take part in at certain times of day (animal handling, folk dancing, etc), but because we visited so late in the afternoon, most of those had finished (except the lefse making, but you know what happened there).

Because I was clearly being a pill, we decided to skip a lot of stuff and just head straight for the old stave church, built around 1200, which was meant to be the highlight. It was indeed pretty cool, as you can probably see, and just about worth the effort (including a hill climb) of getting there. A woman was just finishing a tour in English as we came in, so we got to hear a few interesting bits about certain details in the church as well, like some runes carved into one of the walls (a holdover from Viking times). She also recommended that we go see the apartment building that had rooms decorated to look like they would have in different periods in history, which we had somehow managed to pass on our first circle of the Folkemuseum, and even though I was totally exhausted, I thought we should probably go see it, since it’s not like I’ll be coming back again (I would go back to Oslo, but not to the Folkemuseum, unless it was just to get lefse).


Unfortunately, it was underwhelming. I probably would have liked it well enough if I’d been in a better mood, but it was a lot of steps and almost all the rooms were behind glass with very few things labelled. I did like the references to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in the 1880s room, as it was meant to be based on Nora’s home, but it was basically just your standard Victorian parlour (I would have also liked to visit the Ibsen Museum, but it was closed for renovations during our visit).

I was SO READY TO LEAVE after this, but I did make an exception for the small Sami Museum. My absolute favourite Eurovision song this year was Norway’s, which featured a Sami guy doing kulning in the middle of it, which is a sort of traditional herding call that sounds a bit like yodelling and mimics the sounds of the animals being herded, so I was totally interested to learn more about the Sami. Aren’t their traditional costumes fabulous?

After that though, I had really, really had enough, so we beat a hasty retreat, though sadly we still had one more museum ahead of us before we could go get dinner (the food options on Museum Peninsula are not great. Pretty much just gross looking museum cafes. Lots of hotdogs). Much like Skansen, I think I probably would have had a better time if I’d been less tired and had some food inside me (I really must stop going to open air museums at the end of the day), though I would have been annoyed by the lack of warning that I couldn’t buy lefse without a ticket regardless. Also there needed to be more animals, or at least the ones they have shouldn’t have been hidden away – it was a nice day outside! I’ll still score it slightly higher than Skansen though, because more of the buildings were open, and the museums were better. 2.5/5 for the Folkemuseum.

Oslo: The Kon-Tiki Museum

After visiting the fabulous Fram Museum (“the best museum in Norway”), obviously anything else was going to struggle to compete, particularly another maritime-themed museum, but as the Kon-Tiki Museum was right next door, we headed there next anyway. The museum costs 120 kr to enter, but is free with the Oslo Pass – considering the Fram Museum cost the same and was at least three times the size, I think it’s probably only worth going with an Oslo Pass or combined ticket.


I was vaguely familiar with the story of Kon-Tiki, but I think it might be more well-known to older people who would have seen the film and lived through the whole tiki bar craze of the ’50s and ’60s. Basically, Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian explorer who had spent time studying the peoples of South America and Polynesia, and believed that Polynesians were originally South Americans who had journeyed across the Pacific Ocean by raft. To prove that this was possible, he built a raft from balsa and bamboo, and in 1947 sailed it from Peru to French Polynesia with a crew of five other men, which took 97 days. Although his theories about Polynesians being descended from South Americans were not entirely accurate, it was still an epic voyage, and did accurately reflect their sea-faring capabilities. Also, not to be shallow, but Thor Heyerdahl was kind of cute, so there’s that (I didn’t think I had a Scandi-fetish, but maybe I sort of do).


The Kon-Tiki Museum houses the Kon-Tiki boat, as you might expect, and also Ra II, made of papyrus, which was used for one of Heyerdahl’s Ancient Egypt themed voyages (for someone who was reputedly afraid of the sea, he sure made a lot of anthropological sea voyages after Kon-Tiki). But in order to try to live up to the glorious standard of interactivity set by the Fram Museum, it also had some slightly more interactive bits, which I’ll get to momentarily.


When we walked in, we were greeted by not only by the Kon-Tiki, but also by a giant replica moai, a tribute to Heyerdahl’s fascination with Easter Island. There were panels on the walls containing more information about the inspiration behind the Kon-Tiki voyage, and the voyage itself (everything in the museum had an English translation). Apparently he was advised not to do it because seasoned sailors suspected that the boat would simply fall apart, estimating that the ropes that held it together would last no more than two weeks once exposed to water. Fortunately, this was incorrect, but Heyerdahl and co. still had a moment of panic at the two-week mark when the ropes starting making funny noises, before realising that the ropes had simply worn grooves into the wood, which prevented them from snapping.

After learning all about the Kon-Tiki, we proceeded down a ramp into the bowels of the museum, home to the “aquarium” and “caves” we were promised on the brochure. The aquarium wasn’t real – it was just a glass case made to look like it was full of water, and contained some fake sharks and things (much better than a real aquarium actually, as I didn’t have to feel bad for the fish), and the caves obviously weren’t real caves, but they were fun to walk through, and even contained a few slightly scary surprises. They led into a room full of Polynesian artefacts acquired by Thor Heyerdahl over the years, which is apparently one of the world’s largest collections of Polynesian art. A word of warning – the caves do take you back into the main bit of the museum when you exit, so make sure you see everything on the lower level first before you go through. There was also a film room showing Kon-Tiki, the 1950 movie about Heyerdahl’s experience, but we had a lot to do that day so we gave that one a miss.

We exited the caves into Heyerdahl’s library (complete with a wax figure of Thor himself. Norway seems to excel at the making of waxworks – slightly disappointing, if, like me, you prefer badly done ones, but I have to admit they were impressive), and a room of facts about his life. He seemed like an interesting guy, sort of a David Attenborough-esque figure. During his Ra expeditions, where he sailed across the Atlantic from Morocco to the Caribbean, he encountered a disturbing amount of pollution in the ocean, which led to his involvement with environmental causes. He worked with the UN on some of his voyages, so tried to have crews made up of members from each continent (save Antarctica, obviously), and burned another ship, named the Tigris, in protest against continued war across Africa. He died in 2002 at the age of 87.


The final room of the museum contained the Ra II (the one to successfully make the crossing. He had to abandon the original Ra only 100 miles before reaching the Caribbean islands) and information about his later voyages. The shop had some cool tiki merchandise, if you’re into that kind of thing (I am, and am looking for a replacement for my tiki glass with a butt that I accidentally broke, but no butts were to be had, sadly), but at sky-high Norwegian prices, which are only to be expected, I guess.

I was definitely interested to learn more about Heyerdahl’s life, and I loved the cave part of the museum, but in terms of getting your money’s worth, the Fram Museum delivers so much more. However, since we didn’t actually pay to get in (well, we did, but as part of the Oslo Pass), I thought it was still a reasonable museum, and definitely one to see if you want to warm yourself up after visiting the Fram (or just, you know, going outside in Norway for most of the year) by reading about warmer climes. 3/5.

Oslo, Norway: The Fram Museum


As I mentioned in my last post (and as those of you who follow me on Instagram will have seen), I recently spent a week in Oslo and Gothenburg and visited a LOT of museums. I’m jumping right in with “the best museum in Norway” (according to the banner outside the museum) – the Fram Museum. The Fram is a polar exploration ship that was used on three different late 19th century/early 20th century voyages (including the one where Roald Amundsen famously beat Scott to the South Pole (and then Scott died)), and you all know I love me some polar exploration, so this was probably the museum I was most excited about seeing.


And the initial approach certainly didn’t disappoint. Oslo has its own version of Stockholm’s “Museum Island” as I call it, with the Fram Museum and many others located on their own little strip of land that is technically a peninsula called Bygdøy, but we took a boat to get there, so it kind of felt like an island. You can also get there by bus, but I’ve taken both and recommend the boat, even though you might have to wait a little while for it to fill up (I got crammed in the back of the bus on seats that could really only accommodate three adults, but were holding four, and I felt pretty ill by the end of it). You get a great view of the harbour and all the cool triangular museum buildings lining it, including not only the Fram, but the Kon-Tiki Museum (coming next week) and the Maritime Museum as well.


We did some calculations before coming to Oslo, and worked out that it would be a better deal to just buy the (very expensive) Oslo Pass for the duration of our stay, as it includes free admission to every museum in the city as well as free public transport (they sell it at most museums and in theory in hotels, though ours didn’t have any 72 hour ones). Of course, this meant that we ended up visiting more museums than we might have otherwise just to get our money’s worth, but we definitely saved money in the end, and got to skip queues in some locations. Otherwise admission is 120 kr, which is about £12 (frankly a bargain by Norwegian standards, especially considering all you get), and they do various combined passes with the neighbouring museums. The museum actually includes two polar exploration ships, the Fram and the Gjøa, which are housed in separate buildings and joined by means of an underground tunnel. As you can see, I got off to a very good start by getting my picture with two Norwegian greats of polar exploration: Amundsen, and Fridtjof Nansen.


We were encouraged to watch an introductory video in the Gjøa building, so we headed there first and found we had some time to kill before the next showing, so I got to pet this very soft musk ox (don’t know if I was actually supposed to touch it, but there were no signs saying not to, so I did), and learn a bit about the Gjøa, which I had never heard of before (I am already sick of inserting all those o’s with the line through them). This was the first ship to be sailed through the entire Northwest Passage by Amundsen and his crew of six, in 1903-1906. Considering the fate of most polar expeditions (ship sinks, everyone slowly dies of starvation) it is not only impressive that Amundsen managed to complete this, but also that he brought the ship back intact! I know Amundsen gets a lot of flak from the British for pipping Scott to the South Pole, but this museum (unsurprisingly) made him seem like a pretty alright guy. He was sensible enough to befriend the Inuit and learn from their survival techniques, including the use of huskies, and even more importantly, he loved American pancakes, which became a recurring theme in the museum (he first tried them after completing the Northwest Passage and sledging hundreds of miles to the nearest telegraph office in Alaska so he could tell the world what he’d done, and he thought they were the most delicious thing ever, so they were served on all his subsequent voyages. See what I mean? He was a sensible man).


This is skipping ahead chronologically quite a bit, but my favourite thing in here was this stuffed orangutan carried by a member of Amundsen’s N24/N25 team (an attempt to fly to the North Pole in 1925). One of the planes broke down, so they were instructed to ditch anything unnecessary so they could all fit into the other plane, but this guy smuggled his lucky monkey back hidden in his jacket. (Even better, they sold replicas in the gift shop, so I took my very own stuffed ape home with me. His name is Dr. Fridtjof Nansen.) And how cute is that smiley Inuit guy (third from left)? His picture appeared a couple of times, and he made me smile too. Anyway, we did watch the video eventually, and it was pretty informative, though all the information was contained within the museum, so you could skip it if you’d prefer to read about it. I did like the headphones with personal language selection controls built into each seat.


So we already learned a tonne about Norwegian polar expeditions on this floor, and then we went upstairs and learned about an ill-fated Swedish expedition. This display was made up of super text-heavy panels (and a lot of them, as you can see above), all in English (and bizarrely, exclusively in English, even though everything else in the museum had Norwegian and English captions), but I read every single one because I had never heard of this expedition before, and it was so interesting. There was this basically not very bright Swedish guy named S.A. Andree who attempted to take a hot air balloon to the North Pole, only it had to be super giant because it was carrying three men and all their supplies, and the whole thing turned into a fiasco where, unsurprisingly, everyone ended up dead. There’s a museum in Sweden dedicated solely to this exhibition that I hope to visit one day, so I won’t go into too much detail now, but learning about this pleased me very much.


The rest of this floor was dedicated to some rather funny but incredibly random cartoons loosely about polar exploration, and also what the British thought of Amundsen and his South Pole expedition (they thought secretly diverting to the South Pole when he was originally headed for the North Pole was extremely ungentlemanly (and probably would have liked to use stronger words to describe him, but they were British, so couldn’t) which is probably why he’s barely even mentioned at the polar museum in Cambridge. I definitely think there’s some sour grapes there, but frankly, Scott shouldn’t have been an idiot who went to the Antarctic with ponies, and then refused to kill and eat said ponies when they proved useless, because I seriously don’t know what he was expecting to happen), which was absolutely fascinating to read, as it’s not a perspective you get in Britain. I also think they were salty that because Amundsen used such small crews, each man got his own room, whilst on British ships, pretty much everyone but the captain had to share. You could also climb on the deck of the Gjøa, which had an outhouse on it, which is why you get another delightful photo of me pretending to poop (and it won’t be the last one either. Sorry).


After that, we headed back through the underground passageway, which is lined with information about non-Norwegian polar expeditions (and a walrus skull), to the Fram side of the museum (thankfully, so I don’t have to keep inserting those crossy o’s). The Fram was used by Amundsen, Nansen, and some guy named Otto Sverdrup (who didn’t feature that much in the museum), so the museum contained information about each of those expeditions and Nansen himself. Nansen disappointed me at the end of his life by joining a centre-right party with a creepily nationalistic name (the Fatherland League), but this was prior to WWII, so it didn’t have quite the same connotations as after Hitler, and other than that, what a guy! He was a zoologist who decided to become a badass polar explorer with a dashing moustache (Amundsen was tough, but he was not a looker), and after retiring from exploration, devoted his life to helping refugees and relieving famine, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (that museum is coming up too).


Some of this section did repeat information from the Gjøa side, but if it used to be two separate buildings, I can see why, and it was easy enough to just skip it, but there were also plenty of polar artefacts mixed in, so I think it was well worth a look. The best was yet to come, as you could actually go inside the Fram! And be met by the ship’s cook, with a big old pile of American pancakes (you can buy pancakes in the museum’s café, but disappointingly they were just sitting there in a pile, and not made to order. They might heat them up for you, but even still, I want a fresh pancake), and Nansen himself.


Even though we were being followed around by an annoying Spanish tour group who crowded my personal space, I couldn’t have loved this more. There were interactive elements, authentic smells, and actually quite good mannequins, and I was in heaven, though I think Marcus felt quite ill from the smells and the tight quarters, since he had to duck for most of the time.


Up on deck was great too, as there was a multi-sensory experience involving a giant projection of icebergs and the Northern Lights on the wall, and a bench that rocked up and down for that authentic seasickness experience. And I got to pose again with Fridtjof Nansen, who was really terribly slim. He needed more pancakes!


And this wasn’t even the end of the fun, as there was also a special attraction where you could experience changes in temperature. You pressed a button to be let into a series of doors that led to the “Arctic,” where you encountered dead frostbitten sailors, bodies frozen in the ice, and of course experienced cold (though not so cold that I wasn’t fine in a t-shirt and skirt for the time it took to walk through). I wanted to go back in, but the tour group caught up with us so I changed my mind. Much more fun alone.


And finally downstairs, in addition to the shop and café, there was another area of interactive things, probably intended for children mainly, but I of course used them all after the children cleared off. You could crawl inside an igloo, try shooting wild game (Duck Hunt style, and really really hard), and see if you were capable of pulling a polar sledge aka 150-300 kilos. This was incredibly difficult, particularly as the harness was too big for me (I was using the adult-sized one, so this wasn’t just for children) and my shoes had no grip on the bottom, but Marcus was able to pull right up to 300 kilos (I made it only to about 150, and that was after pulling myself ahead using the wall. I don’t think I could hack it in the Poles).


As you can probably tell, I couldn’t have loved this museum more. It had so much information in it (I didn’t go into a lot of detail here about Amundsen’s various expeditions, like the one by zeppelin or the attempted rescue mission where he died, because this post is already twice as long as normal, but all this was in the museum, and I’m quite sure there are plenty of books where you can learn more) and it was so, so fun. I can’t say if it is the best museum in Norway, but it was certainly the best museum I visited in Norway (so maybe I shouldn’t have blogged about it first, since it’s kind of a spoiler for everything that follows, but there were other good ones, they just weren’t quite this good). I could see how some people might find aspects of it a little cheesy, but I love cheese, and it didn’t detract from the historical bits, which were properly researched and informative (thought not without their elements of fun too, like the pancake tidbit). If you are interested in polar exploration, I can’t recommend this highly enough – I genuinely think it’s the best polar exploration museum I’ve ever been to. How cool is it that you can go on Amundsen’s actual ships?! A rare but well-deserved 5/5, stellar.


London: “Secret Rivers” @ Museum of London Docklands


I went to Oslo and Gothenburg a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve got lots of great (and some not so great) museums to show you from there, but I’m going to first take care of some temporary exhibitions in London that will probably be close to ending by the time I get done posting about Oslo (we went to a LOT of museums), starting with “Secret Rivers” at the Museum of London Docklands, which runs until 27th October.  In many ways, I think I prefer the Docklands Museum to its Museum of London sister site, but I don’t often get out to that part of London, so I was pleased that this exhibition would give me the excuse to do so, not least so I could detour by Greenwich Market and get one of my beloved Brazilian churros.


This exhibition is free to visit, and is pleasingly just the right size – large enough to make it worth the trip, but not so big that I got tired of looking around before we finished. Also pleasingly, it is located on the ground floor, so we didn’t have to hunt it down somewhere in the belly of the museum. The exhibition opened with a map of the Thames and its tributaries, including all of the “secret rivers” featured in the exhibition: the Effra, Fleet, Lea, Neckinger, Tyburn, Walbrook, Wandle, and Westbourne (there’s a fun quiz on their website to determine which river you are – I’m the Walbrook, which except for the spiritual stuff is basically accurate). I think most Londoners will have heard of at least some of these – certainly the Fleet because of the famous street bearing its name – but they are secret in the sense that the rivers were wholly or partially buried under London (mostly during the Georgian or Victorian eras as the city got more built up), and some are only now, after many centuries, undergoing regeneration.


I have to admit that though I am not the most interested in rivers from a nature point of view, I think they’re super interesting for their role in London’s history (especially the Thames, which I have a real soft spot for, though of course that is not hidden), so I was definitely keen to learn more. The exhibition briefly profiled each river, showing its course on a map and explaining how/why it had become “secret,” and displayed a handful of artefacts relating to each river, often things that had been pulled out of it. Some of this was simply garbage, but there were also things like axe heads, swords, religious badges, metal oil lamps used for Diwali, and even a skull.


Since human waste was a big part of why most of the rivers disappeared, there was also a mock-up of a three seat privy (the seat of a real one was on display) so I could sit down and give you my obligatory pretend pooping face (apparently I also flail my arms, based on the way one has completely disappeared). One of the more interesting sections was on Jacob’s Island, a slum formerly located in Bermondsey where the Thames and Neckinger met. Dickens used Jacob’s Island as the inspiration for “Folly Ditch” in Oliver Twist, where Bill Sikes died, but according to the exhibition, he actually made it sound a bit nicer than it would have been in real life. The whole thing was a warren of ramshackle shanties with secret tunnels so its inhabitants could escape the police, and residents were forced to get drinking water from the same area where they emptied their chamber pots. Yum. I have a weird fondness for London tap water (I swear it tastes more full-bodied and delicious than the water in other cities, probably because it’s clogging my guts with limescale), but that’s a bridge too far even for me.


Not all of the rivers profiled here were in slum areas – the Westbourne ran through classy parts of town like Chelsea, and its banks were home to an upmarket version of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens called Ranelagh Gardens, which offered a range of china souvenirs to its visitors, many of which were on display here. However, even rich people produce effluvia, and it too eventually became clogged with shit. Today a much cleaner version of it feeds the Serpentine in Hyde Park, though it is mostly buried.


Marcus took a particular interest in the section on the Wandle, as he is one of the volunteers who has helped to clean it. There used to be a tonne of industry on the Wandle, which runs through Merton, including William Morris’s factory and the Ram Brewery, and it was in a pretty sorry state, but has gone massive regeneration in the last couple of decades, and is now mostly pretty pleasant (save for the occasional discovery of a headless torso), though I’m sure Marcus and everyone else would appreciate it if we could stop carelessly disposing of plastics that make their way into the rivers.


There were a few interactive bits in this exhibition, like chamber pots with authentic smells and an installation where you could listen to the sound of the Thames at Windsor, but it was mostly a lot of text, nicely broken up by images and artefacts, which I was totally fine with, especially the excellent “anecdotal view” of the City, shown above. Marcus was even able to pick up a Wandle pin badge in the shop, though I would have liked to see more exhibition-specific things rather than generic London tat (though their shop is tiny, and I am all too aware of the challenges of ordering in custom merchandise for a special exhibition, but I think they probably could have worked with a local artist to produce some river-themed prints. They did have a couple on sale, but they were tiny A4 sized ones where you couldn’t even see the detail from a distance). However, overall it was truly a riparian entertainment with a good flow (ha!), where I learned about some rivers that I didn’t know existed before visiting (probably exactly what they were aiming for!), and got a kick out of all the scatological humour, like Ben Jonson’s poem, shown above. 3/5.


On a much less positive note, I also popped in to the Science Gallery to see their latest exhibition on Dark Matter, and I wish I hadn’t even bothered. It was possibly even worse than the last one. The theme of dark matter was really taking the piss – they literally included a jar of air and even worse, a display case filled with nothing, and called it art. Even amongst the pieces I liked, like this really cool map showing all the imaginary islands that had appeared on maps over the centuries with descriptions of how each of the islands had come to be imagined, the connection to dark matter in a scientific sense was tenuous at best. I’m not even bothering to give this one a proper post of its own, because I would struggle to fill it. Pretty lame, Milhouse. 1.5/5.


London: “Food: Bigger than the Plate” @ the V&A

The V&A’s exhibitions have been quite fashion-heavy of late (Dior, Mary Quant), and whilst I do like historical fashions, I’m not so keen on designer-based things (I seem to be in the minority though, as I think Dior is completely sold out for the rest of its run, and you’d probably be wise to pre-book Mary Quant). So I was glad to see they were offering an alternative to fashion in the form of Food: Bigger than the Plate, which runs until 20th October and is all about the future of the food industry.


I tend to book ahead at the V&A just to avoid queuing at the ticket desk, but it probably isn’t necessary for this exhibition, at least on weekdays. Admission is £17, which is a lot, but as usual, I only paid half with National Art Pass (if you visit as many exhibitions as I do, you definitely end up getting your money’s worth). There weren’t many people inside the exhibition, but I had to wait for a few minutes to enter because they were changing over staff at the entrance. This wasn’t a problem for me, but it clearly was for the old woman behind me who passed the time by loudly complaining about them (and possibly me, for not just walking right in? It was hard to tell who she was angry at. Everyone, I guess). After dealing with people being rude to me and my volunteers on a regular basis at the museum where I work, I have very limited tolerance for this kind of behaviour, so because I wasn’t at work and was free to do so, I may have made a comment right back to her. Seriously, please do not be horrible to customer service people who’ve done nothing to deserve it. Their jobs are awful enough without having to deal with your abuse.


At least the mean lady had the decency to disappear quite quickly after we got inside the exhibition (I think she might have been embarrassed after I called her out), so I didn’t have to keep awkwardly bumping into her as I wandered round. The exhibition covered four separate themes: composting, farming, trading, and eating, but it was more free-flowing than a typical exhibition here, which is probably why they had a round flow-charty thing serving as a map in each room to indicate how far along you were. And I have to say that the exhibition was definitely bigger than I was anticipating, certainly “bigger than the plate.” (Huurrrp.)


Of course I think sustainability is important, but I have to admit that I don’t think it’s the most fascinating of topics, so I was impressed that the exhibition held my attention throughout, right from the toilets near the entrance, though they definitely were display-only (I did kind of have to pee, but not in public)! They were water-free toilets, where the poop is caught in some kind of biodegradable bag. To be honest, the mushrooms grown out of bags of used coffee grounds were way grosser – just look at them! I’m not a mushroom fan at the best of times though.


There were a lot of examples of plant-based leathers and plastics, a collection of leather goods made from the hide of one poor cow, maps showing fruit trees in London where you could do a bit of urban foraging, and zines covering how to make beer from things like yogurt, but lest it all become a little too crunchy, there was also this great booklet/artwork parodying sustainability taken to extremes by offering ideas on how best to capture your tears to either make your own salt (you need something like 200ml of tears for one gram of salt) or to feed moths (and believe me, the pictures of moths licking tears off someone’s face were terrifying, especially for a lepidopterophobe like myself).


And then we got into farming, which was a mix of delights and horrors. There was a collection of tinned pork products that had all come from one pig who had been followed from birth to death by an artist. This was accompanied by a video of the pig’s life, up to and including slaughter (hence the horrors). I watched a bit of cute baby pig doing pig stuff, but moved away pretty quick before they got anywhere near the slaughterhouse. Since I don’t eat them, and I know damn well what happens to them (I’ve watched enough PETA propaganda films in my day), I don’t particularly want to watch it happening again, but I think it is good that it was there so those who do choose to eat meat can at least see where that meat is coming from (I’m really not a particularly ethical vegetarian, but I do think it’s only right that if you’re willing to eat it, you should be willing to watch it die).


On a happier note, chickens! Some guy is trying to breed healthier chickens through crossbreeding (as an example of how factory farming has destroyed the health of most modern breeds, a woman had attempted to make bone china from the bones of factory farmed chickens vs. organic chickens, and the factory farmed china was all grey and crumbly and horrible. Made me sick just looking at it), so there was a chart of chickens showing the breeds he had mixed and some (admittedly taxidermied) examples of the new breeds he created. There was also Florence, an adorable little strawberry plant who was having her environment monitored by a computer, and you could ask her questions about her mood, interests, etc, and get a fairly incoherent response in return. And after passing through all the horrors of factory farming, we got to sample an herb-based beverage from a kiosk, though sadly not the cherry one that was sitting out on the counter.


On the subject of beverages, the trading section (which was the smallest section here) contained the recipe for Coca Cola, at least as determined by the company that makes Cube Cola, after much trial and error. And now I guess you’ll be able to make it too, though I strongly doubt many of us are going to go out and buy nutmeg oil and powdered caffeine. There were some nice posters in here, and it’s always interesting to think about how far some food travels, like bananas to Iceland, which was the subject of a video here, though I confess I am definitely not a locavore sort of person (though we might all have to be if Brexit goes ahead. Have you actually looked at how many things in British supermarkets are made in the EU? Because it’s seriously most foods. It’s almost like no one actually thought this through…).


I was most excited for the eating section – the name was a bit of a misnomer, as there was only one thing you could eat in here, but I’m way more interested in culinary history than eating weird “foods of the future,” so that wasn’t really a problem for me, at least until I got to the diagrams of various cakes known only in Portugal. My experience of Portuguese baking (as sold in London) has not been great, but some of these cakes looked awfully tempting! I can’t say the same for the cheese made from celebrity cultures, including a cheddar from Suggs’s ear wax, and a Comte made from Heston Blumenthal’s pubes (I’m throwing up in my mouth a little just thinking about it). I guess I would eat cheese made from my own bacteria, but I can’t imagine it would taste particularly nice, as anyone who has smelled my feet would likely agree.


This section wasn’t only about food, but also about the nature of consumption. There was a display of pottery with designs depicting the early sugar cane industry, and all the slavery and suffering that went along with it, and objects from the intriguing project “Enemy Kitchen” by Michael Rakowitz, who started serving Iraqi food in Chicago during the Iraq War, to try to increase cultural understanding. He even served a dinner off of Saddam Hussein’s personal china, and imported a box of dates into the US from Iraq just to show that despite the difficulties that arose during the importation process, it could be done.


The last section of the exhibition was a massive dining table set with different dishes at every place – some were examples of art, others were inventions that could help people with various disabilities, like Parkinson’s, to feed themselves – and a counter where you could order your own food of the future. You didn’t have a choice of dish, you just selected three qualities you thought the food of the future should have (such as sustainable, vegan, delicious, affordable, etc), and they would make you a teeny cracker based on your choices. I am far too much of a picky eater to gamble like this, but Marcus gave it a go and ended up with some kind of courgette crisp topped with mushroom puree. He said it tasted sort of like pizza.


I have to say that I enjoyed this exhibition much more than I thought I would, given the emphasis on the future of food (when I’d usually prefer to learn about the past). I learned a lot, and it is definitely interesting, though not always appetising, to think about what food might become in the future. If I had one complaint, it’s that this exhibition featured an awful lot of products, most of which were conveniently for sale in the shop, which gave it rather a corporate feel (and because most of the products were pretty cool, I ended up buying more than I usually would at a museum shop. I’m a sucker for Tarot cards, and they had a food-themed pack you can use when you can’t decide what to have for dinner), which didn’t seem to match with the ethos of the rest of the exhibition. However, this is a fairly minor quibble, and I think it is very much worth seeing if you can get in for half-price (£17 is a bit steep), since it’s always good to know more about where your food comes from. 3.5/5, and I’ll leave you with a collage Marcus put together of the gorgeous wallpaper (if I ignore the butterflies) commissioned specially for the exhibition, and found throughout the gallery walls.


London: Stanley Kubrick @ the Design Museum

I am not a Stanley Kubrick fan. To be honest, every time I’ve seen one of his films, I’ve felt sick afterwards. But this is not really an example of me taking one for the team/sake of the blog, because Marcus does like him, and wanted to see this. Also, “The Shinning” is one of my absolute favourite segments in The Simpsons‘ “Treehouse of Horror,” so even though I don’t particularly like the Kubrick version of The Shining, I thought it would be worth going for the memorabilia from that film alone.

Of course, The Shining was only one small part of this comprehensive exhibition. The grandly titled: Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is at the Design Museum until 15th September, and costs £14.50 (half off with Art Pass). I would recommend pre-booking at least a few days in advance, as it does seem to sell out, even on weekdays. I booked on a Friday for a Monday visit, and it was pretty crowded inside, mainly with American tourists (I suppose they could have been living here like I am, but they had the air of tourists. You can tell).


The exhibition opened with a small section on Kubrick’s life before he became a director (seriously small. Like two cases worth. All I got out of it was that he liked chess). Apparently people often don’t realise he was American, because he spent almost the whole of his adult life in Britain (wonder if that’ll happen to me after I get famous, though I suspect the accent will give it away). It then talked about his method of directing (obsession basically), illustrated by his personal copies of some of his scripts. And I mean literally illustrated, because he drew little pictures in the scripts of how he wanted certain scenes to look. His drawing was about as good as mine (which is to say terrible), so these were pretty funny.


From there, the exhibition segued into a series of small galleries for each one of his films, including props, film clips, and some making of/behind the scenes facts. The trouble with not being a Kubrick fan is that I’ve only ever seen three of his movies: The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and A Clockwork Orange, so those were really the only parts that held my attention (and I seriously hate A Clockwork Orange so much, so it wasn’t necessarily holding my attention in a good way. I genuinely felt ill just looking at some of the props).


Like the one above left, for example. Not on account of it being a penis, but because I know what Alex does with that giant penis, and it is not pleasant. Because of this film, Malcolm McDowell totally gives me the creeps, but the photo shoot of him trying different hats to find one that suited his character was still pretty amusing. I think the bowler hat probably was the right way to go.


Speaking of creeps, how about Jack Nicholson? I think that’s why I hate the film version of The Shining so much, because Jack Nicholson taints everything he touches with his creepy creepy smile (I had to go see the first Batman movie in the cinema when I was about 4 (don’t think my parents realised how scary it was, since the TV show was super tame and campy), and his portrayal of the Joker has put me off Jack Nicholson for life). I have read The Shining, and of course it’s still scary, but the whole point is that while Jack Torrance clearly had his demons, he was trying his best to be a normal family man at the beginning of the book, which is what makes his descent into insanity so terrifying. Jack Nicholson was clearly just waiting for an opportunity to murder his family from the start, so all you’re left wondering is why they would be stupid enough to agree to be holed up with him for the winter in the first place.


But true to expectations, The Shining section was my favourite one by far, with all the props you’d want to see: the typewriter (“no TV and no beer make Homer something something”), the twins’ dresses, the axe, the photograph at the end of the film showing the Outlook Hotel at the July 4th Ball of 1921, and a miniature version of the maze from the movie made by Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame. There was even a patch of the Outlook Hotel carpet at the entrance to the exhibition (“that’s odd, usually the blood gets off at the second floor.” I really could quote classic Simpsons all day long (and often do))!


But I must reluctantly move on from “The Shinning” and get to the rest of the exhibition. I’ve never seen Barry Lyndon, apparently about a Georgian rogue, but the making-of in this case was quite interesting. Apparently no electric lighting was used during filming, so they had a lens with a super wide aperture to film in candlelight. The resulting film was also meant to look quite flat, like 18th century paintings, and certain scenes were even supposed to match up to various famous paintings, like Gainsborough’s Blue Boy (Hyacinth Bucket’s favourite). Because Kubrick didn’t want to have to leave England to film it, it was shot at about twenty different stately homes around the South of England, so Kubrick didn’t have to travel too far from London.


I’ve also never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that one is at least ingrained enough in popular culture that I knew all about HAL and was willing to pose for a photo with him. There was also a gorilla suit that apparently features at the start of the film, a creepy (god, I’ve used that word a lot in this post) baby in a floating sphere, and a set of rather groovy furniture that was meant to be the interior of a Hilton Space Station.


Because I’m not familiar with Kubrick’s entire oeuvre, I think my views will be quite different than those of a fan. I enjoyed seeing the props I recognised, and some of the stuff about censorship and the film-making process was quite interesting, but personally, I would have liked to know more about Kubrick’s life, other than a brief blurb about his childhood and the fact that he married an actress from one of his films (in fact, she was the only female actress in the entirety of Paths of Glory, his WWI film, which looks like it actually might be worth watching). For one thing, I’d like to know what inspired him to make such violent films, or why he seemed to really like Jack Nicholson, who he had also marked down to play Napoleon, had that project not fallen through.


But I’ve little doubt that Kubrick fans would have been delighted with this, and even with me skipping over the sections I had no interest in (Eyes Wide Shut, for one), we still spent around an hour in there, so I think it was worth the price of my half-price ticket. In fact, I am intrigued enough to possibly check out Lolita and Paths of Glory, though whether I’ll actually like them is a different story altogether. The shop is also rich in Kubrick merchandise, though sadly nothing that could double as a “Shinning” reference, so we only got a postcard. For me, this was a solid 3/5, but fans will probably score it significantly higher.

London: “Writing: Making Your Mark” @ the BL

Am I alone in thinking that “Writing: Making Your Mark” is a really dull exhibition title? Well, for better or worse, that is the title of the BL’s current exhibition, which runs until 27th August (my birthday!). Admission is £14 (half off with Art Pass), and this is one where there probably isn’t any need to book ahead. Certainly the galleries were the emptiest I’d ever seen them when I went inside, though in typical BL style, some of my fellow visitors still seemed to go out of their way to be as irritating as possible: blocking cases whilst having extended conversations in front of them, bending down so far to read the signs that the entire case was obscured, and one very strange dedicated mother and teenage son duo who analysed everything single thing in every single one of the cases, even translating some of the foreign texts into English (the son made a valiant attempt to escape at one point, and totally ignored his mother calling him from across the exhibition, but she nabbed him in the end). So even though there were only about ten other people in there, they still all conspired to make my visit more of a trial than it needed have been.

Limestone Stela with Mayan Glyphs, BL.

Also complicating things was the BL’s usual prohibition on photography, which makes it especially difficult to talk retrospectively about an exhibition with a theme as, well, vague as this one (all photographs in this post, aside from the first one, are taken from the BL’s website). Like all of the BL’s PACCAR Gallery exhibitions, this was divided into sections, each as thrillingly titled as the exhibition itself: The Origins of Writing, Writing Systems and Styles, Materials and Technology, People and Writing, and The Future of Writing. These divisions weren’t always super clear, as most of the exhibition simply consisted of the written word, be it on the page, a stone tablet, or in the case of one of the most memorable objects, a piece of pottery that was used as a work permit giving a prostitute the right to ply her trade in the confines of a city (in Ancient Greece? I can’t remember, and I cannot decipher the writing on that shard (sherd). Somewhere in the ancient world anyway) for a day.

Prostitute Day Pass, BL.

The best thing about this exhibition was definitely the interactive elements, which I got to use for once, since the small number of other visitors strangely didn’t seem interested in them (they only cared about being annoying about the stuff in the cases, which I guess is good, in a way). These included tablets where you had to guess which language each writing system belonged to (surprisingly difficult), a station where you could try your hand at typesetting (though you disappointingly didn’t get to print anything, as you were just lining up letters on a board), and my favourite thing of all: a tablet where you submitted a writing sample, and it analysed your handwriting (I don’t know if it was entirely correct, but still, fun! Apparently I write with an upward slant and have well-defined dots and crosses, which can mean ambitiousness (definitely not) or arrogance (probably, though I think I’m more of a snob than arrogant. Arrogant implies a certain self-confidence that I don’t really possess) and a well-ordered mind (hopefully?)).

Section of a Mozart Symphony, BL.

The other best section, as far as I was concerned, was the one featuring examples of the handwriting of famous people, which contained Robert Falcon Scott’s last diary entry (which I’ve seen before, but still, so sad, and so pointless), one of Mozart’s symphonies as originally composed in his handwriting, Alexander Fleming’s early notes on penicillin, and if I recall correctly, I think either the manuscript for Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein, or possibly both (this is the problem with not being able to take pictures. Well, that and trying to blog about something three weeks after the fact because I went to a lot of exhibitions in a short period of time and didn’t get around to this until now).

Caxton Canterbury Tales

As usual, the exhibition was illustrated throughout with lots of beautiful old texts, except for the final section, which was really pretty lame, as all it seemed to consist of was a screen where you could vote on how you thought people would communicate in 2050, and a scroll of paper where you could write how you felt about the future of handwriting (surprisingly few obscene messages, but given that most of the BL’s visitors appear to be pensioners, I guess it would have been much more surprising to find a penis doodled there or something). There were a handful of non-book related artefacts, such as a tattooing kit and some pens and pencils showing the evolution of writing implements, though I was disappointed to see there was nothing from the Pen Museum. I think I would have liked more of this sort of thing, particularly tattooing, though I guess it’s up for debate on whether it’s more of an art form or a form of communication.

Writing Composite Image, BL.

I suppose the object of the exhibition was to explore how writing evolved across cultures, and what might happen to writing in the digital age, and it did do that to some extent, though more as an overview than as a comprehensive exhibition. They didn’t use the entire exhibition space and what was here was far more spread out than usual, which I suppose is fine when you’re appreciating a beautiful object (or blocking a case, as at least then you’re only blocking one), but something about it just felt a little half-assed. This is definitely not one of their “blockbuster exhibitions,” maybe more just something to fill the space during the summer, when they presumably get fewer visitors than normal (because I’m assuming people don’t want to spend their summer hanging out in an archive? I would (well, in one with fewer rules than the BL), but I’m not normal). I liked it fine, but nothing in here was particularly memorable, as you can probably tell from the way I’m struggling to fill up this post, and if I’d paid full price, I think I’d be fairly annoyed at the lack of content, especially compared to the BL’s normal exhibitions. 2.5/5 for this one.

London: Wandsworth Prison Museum

I’ve been interested in seeing the Wandsworth Prison Museum for some time, but it only opens to the public a few days each year and I never quite managed to catch one of these open days. However, a friend of mine sent me an email about an open weekend in early June as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival, so I made sure to make the effort to get there this time, even though I had to go alone and take my own poor quality pictures because I was working on the Saturday of the open weekend, and Marcus was volunteering at a filming of Antiques Roadshow on the Sunday, so we didn’t have an opportunity to go together (yes, I gave up a chance to queue for hours and have my antiques appraised to do this instead. Actually, I could have still queued for hours after visiting the prison museum, but it was hot that day, and I did not fancy spending three hours standing in direct sunlight, especially since I already know that anything antique that I own is of low value. Poor Marcus had no choice but to stand outside all day, and ended up with terrible sunburn, but at least he got to volunteer with the cool militaria expert with the moustache).


The prison is located in the North Car Park of Wandsworth Prison (still a functioning prison), which is probably why it is only open a few times a year. It was hard to spot it because of the high walls surrounding the prison, and I didn’t see any signs anywhere as I would have expected from an open day, so I ended up circling the entire complex and walking back again from the opposite direction. It was on the return trip that I spotted the A4 sign with a tiny arrow directing me to the museum, which was completely invisible from the angle of my initial approach. I was glad I managed to find the museum on the second attempt, because I was worried I might be starting to look suspicious to the guards strolling around the site (I mean, they weren’t in watch towers with guns or anything like that, but authority figures still make me nervous). It is in a small shed right in the parking lot (as seen at the start of the post), but the current shed is apparently twice the size of the shed it used to be in, so I guess that’s an improvement. However, after looking at pictures of the old museum, I don’t think they’ve actually added anything to the new museum, just spread things out a bit more.


Wandsworth Prison has had some famous inmates come through it over the years, including Oscar Wilde, who spent four months here whilst awaiting transfer to Reading Gaol; John Haigh, the “Acid Bath” murderer; Ronnie Kray, and Ronnie Biggs (also Hawkwind played here, as you can see from the newspaper article above, but their female singer was advised not to take her top off on this occasion as she normally would onstage, and she apparently followed that advice). Obviously Wilde is a far more sympathetic figure than the others, but I can’t pretend I’m not interested in the lurid details of true crime, so of course John Haigh is of considerable interest as well. Contrary to his nickname, he didn’t actually kill people with acid, but battered or shot them to death first, and then dissolved their bodies in acid to hide the evidence (I’m not sure if that makes it any better than just killing them with the acid, but it does sound slightly less agonising for the victims). Although you wouldn’t have learned much of that here, as it was much more a prison museum than a crime museum, and frankly, even the history of the prison was a bit lighter than I was hoping.


The most interesting things in here by far were the execution box, which I think I saw before at the Black Museum exhibition, and the life mask of one of Britain’s last and most famous hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint (he featured prominently in the black comedy play Hangmen, which I saw a few years ago. The main character is a second-rate hangman who is super jealous of Pierrepoint (pronounced peer-point)). People were executed at Wandsworth Prison, including the aforementioned John Haigh, hanged by the also aforementioned Pierrepoint, but Wandsworth Prison was also the keeper of all the execution boxes for the whole of England. They had twenty boxes containing rope, straps, a sandbag, a hood, and whatever else you might need to hang someone, which were sent out as needed. There was a police officer supervising the museum whilst I was there (I wasn’t sure if you were allowed to take photos, and I was too shy to ask, so I kept trying to surreptitiously take them when his back was turned. I’m sure he was on to me, as I must have looked shady as all hell, so I dropped some coins in the donation box on the way out to look more like an upstanding citizen), and he started telling some guy about the difference between American and British noose knots, which was super interesting (basically, American knots lock on the neck and can only be cut, rather than untied, so are single use. The British just used a basic slip knot so the rope could either be reused or cut into lengths and sold to souvenir hunters to make some extra cash on the side for the hangman (I already knew about them selling the rope, but I don’t know anything about knots, so that part was news to me)). I wish he had shared more stories like that without prompting, because I don’t really like asking questions.


Aside from those objects, it was fairly standard prison museum fare – lots of photographs and newspaper clippings, and a couple uniforms and a little wooden (cardboard?) model of the prison, although there were a few grisly bits thrown in here and there amongst the mundane if you took the time to look, like the innocent looking ruler and pliers that were actually tools used by executioners to measure the rope for hanging. But it certainly wasn’t as thrilling as an actual criminology museum, and for all that the museum had been recently redone, I found the information in the cases quite hard to read, as it was printed in small font on laminated sheets hung in the back of the cases, and with the sunlight streaming in through the open doors, it was hard to get the right angle to actually be able to read them and match the labels up with the objects in the cases, let alone clandestinely photograph them.

Apart from being intimidated by the location (which, as you might expect, is not the easiest thing to access. You kind of have to get a bus from Earlsfield, or walk for quite a while) and thus having a bit of a panic when I couldn’t find it right away, I certainly don’t regret visiting, but I do wish that the information was more detailed and a bit easier to read. I also wish the officer working there could have shared more behind-the-scenes stories with us, as that was what made the City Police Museum so delightful on my first visit (until they went ahead and ruined it by making it very impersonal). I imagine they’ll probably be open at some point in September for either Heritage Open Days or Open House London if you want to pay this museum a visit yourself, though I think there are certainly better crime and punishment museums out there. 2.5/5.