travel

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

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

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

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

 

 

 

Dorchester, Dorset: The Keep Military Museum

Of course, Dorset wasn’t all just knobs. I also found time to visit some museums. The glorious, castle-like Keep Military Museum is situated rather incongruously in the middle of Dorchester, sandwiched between the much less attractive modern barracks, and a large pay-and-display car park (and a note on the car park; there is a small, free car park behind the museum for visitors, so you don’t need to pay to park unless there’s no space in the museum lot). When I was looking for museums to visit in Dorchester (which is where the Knob Festival took place), the two that stood out to me were the Keep and the Dorset County Museum; sorely tempted though I was by the Crystal Palace style gallery at the Dorset County Museum, the promise of mannequins (and bizarrely, Hitler’s desk) won me over to the Keep in the end (and with each museum charging £7 for admission, I certainly wasn’t going to visit both!).

  

So, after parting with £7 each, and undergoing a brief interrogation from the admissions desk guy about how I’d heard of the place (he was perfectly nice about it, he was just very anxious to know EXACTLY where I’d heard of them, and apparently “Uh, I just googled ‘museums in Dorchester,’ and you popped up,” wasn’t specific enough) Marcus and I were ready to enter the Keep. However, we’d arrived at exactly the same time as a group of elderly military enthusiasts (I think they may have been veterans) who were being given a tour of the museum, so one of the volunteers suggested that we start with one of the upper floors first so we didn’t get stuck behind them, which was much appreciated. Thus, we began the ascent up one of the spiral staircases running through the Keep, and emerged on the first floor.

  

This floor contained a chronological history of the Devon and Dorset Regiments, which are the regiments that the museum is dedicated to (being located in Dorset and all). Most of the local regiments were formed in the 17th and 18th centuries, so some of the earliest artefacts were from the American Revolution. As I mentioned in the National Army Museum post, I read Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition, about Benedict Arnold, not too long ago, so I was in the perfect position to appreciate all the John Andre stuff in their collection. John Andre was a British Army officer who was sent to collect maps from Benedict Arnold after Arnold decided to turn traitor; however, he was captured by American militiamen on his way back to British lines, and because General Clinton had promised to protect Arnold, he couldn’t exchange Arnold for Andre, so Andre was executed in Arnold’s stead. There’s actually a rather horrible story about how Andre was executed…because he was technically an officer, he was hoping to be executed by firing squad, but because he wasn’t in uniform when he was caught, Washington decided to make an example of him by treating him as a spy, thus executing him by hanging. Andre wasn’t told this until the day of his execution, when he was marched from his cell, and led to the purpose-built gallows. Upon seeing them, his knees buckled, because he thought he was getting the firing squad (hangings back then were still by short drop, so you died of strangulation, which took ages. It was much more prolonged and horrible than firing squad). I felt pretty sick reading this story in Philbrick’s book, and helpfully, the museum provided a small diorama of his hanging (so now I can REALLY visualise it). There was also a lock of Andre’s hair, given by him to Peggy Shippen (Benedict Arnold’s wife, but she and Andre had had a flirtation going before she married Arnold…it’s a long story), and a few more of his possessions.

   

But let’s leave the depressing story of Andre there (lest you feel too bad for him, you should know that he was super snobby, although that doesn’t mean he deserved hanging), and talk about something more cheerful. Like all the dressing up opportunities this museum provides!  As is pretty much a requirement for any museum that talks about WWI, they had a mock-up of some trenches, and one of the rooms had some clothes hanging on a hook, so even though I’m not 100% sure if I should have done so, I obviously put them on and posed (it was a lovely coat too. So big and warm). I also grabbed a helmet and gun in the WWII display (I’ve trimmed my bangs since then! I was in the middle of an attempt to grow them out at the time, but I just couldn’t deal with them covering half my face anymore).

  

We found “Hitler’s desk” up here. It might not even have actually been Hitler’s desk, though it was apparently retrieved from the bunker where Hitler was holed up at the end of the war, so it was certainly at least a Nazi desk (not that that’s really something to brag about). To be honest, I found the information about British rationing way more interesting…I was initially somewhat perturbed to see the tiny amount of cheese I would have been allocated, so was relieved to see that vegetarians were given extra cheese.  I just hope it was a nice mature cheddar or something, rather than the horrible government-grade cheese that I suspect it probably was.

  

The next floor was the medals floor, and really all that can be said about this is “wow, that’s a lot of medals!” In fact, that’s exactly what I said when I saw it, and I had to laugh when another couple came up a minute after we did, and the guy immediately exclaimed, “wow, that’s a lot of medals!”

  

The third floor carried on with the history of the regiments in post-WWII engagements, though there was also a splendid matchstick model of the Keep hidden in the corner. I should mention that most of the labels throughout the museum were written on wooden paddles hanging from the side of each case. There weren’t enough visitors that there was an issue with having to wait to read them, but I do think it might have been easier if labels had actually been put on the cases, rather than having to keep looking back and forth to figure out what each number was. At least there was additional information about everything though, unlike at the NAM.

  

We finally made our way up to the top of the Keep (all the floors of the museum are lift-accessible, but you can only get up to the roof by stairs, unfortunately. Also, if you can’t take the stairs, you sadly miss out on all the military cartoons they have posted on the way up), and its panoramic views of Dorchester. Despite the Keep’s Norman appearance, it was actually only completed in 1879, and rather boringly served as an administrative centre for the Dorsetshire Regiment before being turned into a museum (although soldiers were de-loused in the room inside the turret you can see in the photo on the left, which is kind of interesting). From the top of the Keep, you can see the Little Keep, which was the home of the old militia barracks, completed in 1866, and is still more attractive than the new barracks, but probably wouldn’t meet the modern army’s needs.

  

Since we’d missed the ground floor initially to give the tour group time to pass through, we headed back down there last, and honestly, I’m glad we saw it at the end of our visit, because it was the best part! The mannequins were just fantastic, and there was some pretty cool stuff down here, like a prison cell that soldiers were kept in to await court martial.

  

There was also some fascinating, albeit depressing information about the soldiers who were executed for desertion in WWI (three of them were from the Dorsetshire Regiment, and their stories were told here), traditional army punishments (each more horrible than the last, these included flogging, being made to sit on some kind of wooden “horse” torture device, having your heels somehow forced up to your chin, and a form of water torture that was so painful it made even the toughest men faint. Makes branding seem almost pleasant by comparison), and the difference in the quality of life between 19th century soldiers, and their farmer counterparts (hint: it was much better being a farmer).

  

To end on a more positive note, there was another dressing-up box in a room at the back of the museum, and since no one else was there, I indulged myself again! (I know the hat doesn’t go with the first jacket (and my salute’s a bit crap in the second jacket), but they didn’t have one that did, and I didn’t want to go hat-less. And god, I really need one of those WWI overcoats for myself. SO GOOD.)

Before we went, I read some reviews comparing the Keep to the NAM in London, and they said the two were of similar quality (intended as a compliment). Since these were written before the new NAM opened, it gives me some insight into what the old museum must have been like, and validates my position in my NAM post that the old museum must have been better than the new one in terms of artefact display, because the Keep was pretty damn good about displaying their artefacts, despite the wooden paddle labels that made me feel like I was a pupil in a ye olde one room schoolhouse. Although I didn’t really find much of interest in the medals floor, I get that they’re understandably proud of them and want to display them somewhere (it would help if they explained how the medals were earned, because they only did that in a couple of instances, and I’m sure the stories would be interesting), and on the whole, it was definitely the biggest, as well as one of the better regimental museums I’ve seen, especially the ground and first floors. 3.5/5 for the museum, and they deserve another medal in their massive collection for providing so many superb dressing-up opportunities.

 

 

The Dorset Knob Throwing Festival!

I do love a bizarre local festival (see Kattenstoet), and the Dorset Knob Throwing Festival certainly falls under that category. I first became aware of it a few years ago, via a cooking show, I think (can’t remember which one), and this year, the stars aligned and I was able to attend (OK, Marcus and I were planning on going somewhere in England on the early May bank holiday weekend anyway, and we were thinking of Leicester (to see some Daniel Lambert sites), until I thought, “wait, when’s the Dorset Knob Festival?” Turns out it is also on the early May bank holiday weekend. Decision made).

I’ve been to enough, shall we say, provincial festivals and fetes in England to know roughly what to expect, so I wasn’t setting my hopes too high, but I was still expecting an amusing day out based solely on the obvious sense of humour possessed by the festival organisers. But first things first, what, you may ask, is a Dorset knob, and why is there a festival based around throwing them?

In the words of Dorset Phil, who performed at the Knob Festival, and described them more eloquently than I can: “Knob knob knob, Dorset knob, I likes mine with cheese. Hard as wood, tastes real good, but it goes soft when I dunk it in my tea.” (I recommend watching the whole video; the verses are pretty great too, and it is damn catchy.) Basically, they are small, hard, dry, extremely bland (I don’t agree with the “tastes real good” line) biscuity things that used to be generally available in the area, but are now produced by only one baking company, and only seasonally.  They’re made out of triple-baked bread dough, so it’s sort of like what would happen if you left a small roll somewhere for a good month or so to dry out. And yes, people eat them with cheese, typically a local blue cheese, which is how they were serving them at the festival (I did not have one there, because I hate blue cheese), but you can also dunk them in tea, which is how the competitors eat them in the knob eating contest. As for why they throw them…well, I genuinely can’t find an answer to that, but perhaps it’s related to similar traditions elsewhere in England of throwing hot cross buns. Ten years ago, someone seemed to realise that Dorset knobs had a hilarious name, started an innuendo-laden festival in their honour, and it’s grown from there, even having to move to a new location this year to accommodate the crowds.

  

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t due to cooperate on the day of the festival, as it was supposed to rain all day, only getting worse as the day progressed. So I threw on wellies and my raincoat, and we showed up right when the festival opened, before the rain got really bad. This turned out to be a smart move, as we were able to park relatively close to the field where the festival was taking place, and it wasn’t super crowded.

  

Admission was a fiver, and I was initially a little dismayed when I saw the venue…though I had been expecting crap, I was hoping I’d be wrong, but it just looked like a very standard English outdoor festival – some stalls by local food producers, and then some random generic crap for sale, like those wooden bowls and leatherware that seem to pop up at every market. However, once we got inside and saw all the knob-themed things, I started to perk up, because it was funny, and also rather delightful.

  

In addition to the knob throwing (of which more in a second, but I think they really missed a trick by not calling it “knob tossing”), there were SO MANY OTHER knob-themed games, including putt-the-knob, knob and spoon race, splat-the-knob, guess the weight of the big knob, knob-spotting, etc etc. I was also thrilled to see that they had t-shirts, tote bags, and bumper stickers for sale, because one of my main aims in visiting was to score myself a knob t-shirt (mission accomplished, though maybe they should consider having black t-shirts in women’s sizes. I’m not a huge fan of pink, and they were already sold out of men’s smalls in black). But of course we started with the knob throwing. You got three tries for a pound and you had to throw underarm, and it is not as easy as it looks. They’re light, and they don’t go very far (I think a hot cross bun would be a hell of a lot easier to throw). I definitely did not take home the glorious bronze knob for my attempts.

As you can see, I also pinned the knob on the Cerne giant. Although I did indeed get it in the right place, anatomically (the blindfold wasn’t very effective), you actually had to land in the correct, pre-chosen secret square, which could have been anywhere on the board, to win the prize. We also attempted to guess the number of knobs in a jar, albeit unsuccessfully. Once we’d had enough of knob games, we wandered around a bit and dropped far too much money on food, including some surprisingly excellent brownies, local honey fudge, a three pack of beer from Cerne Abbas Brewery (which honestly, we bought mainly for the bottles with their Cerne giant label), and of course, an ice cream (though I pretty much just ate sweets, I was pleasantly surprised by how many savoury veggie options there were, including a vendor selling steamed puddings filled with dal that looked intriguing, but the food tent was hellishly crowded on account of the rain, and I wasn’t up for braving it again after I’d passed her stall), and then stood around listening to the musical stylings of the aforementioned Dorset Phil (who writes songs about drinking, and Dorset, and sometimes both, as in the case of his Badger Ale song), who I actually really enjoyed (but then I quite like the Wurzels, and he had a similar sort of amusing regional accent vibe).

Other than “awwwing” at all the cute puppies people had with them, there wasn’t really much else to do, and the rain was coming down harder, so we called it a day. Honestly, considering the size of the festival, I was amazed we spent almost two hours there, and that I enjoyed myself as much as I did. It was indeed, as the sign at the entrance promised, a “knobtastic day.” Kudos to the organisers for having a great sense of humour, and to everyone working there for being really friendly. It kind of reminded me of the funfair in that episode of Father Ted when Ted is trying to get interviewed by that TV show (minus the shitty rides), but it was self-consciously so – they’re definitely in on the joke!  The whole thing was really quite charming, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would go back again, especially if I lived closer!  3.5/5.

London: Russian Revolution; Hope, Tragedy, Myths @ the British Library

For the United Russia, 1919.

When I was unexpectedly given a Wednesday off work (albeit without pay, but hell, I’ll take it. Anything is better than being at work!), my first plan was to go home, change back into my jimjams, and catch up on some reading, but then I thought, “nah, I’m already dressed and out of the house, might as well make the most of it!” So, even though it was a bleak, rainy day, I had a great time. I went up to Golders Green to restock my bagel supply (whatever I don’t eat fresh, I throw in the freezer for bagel emergencies), got roti canai for lunch at the Roti King, and, most importantly for the purposes of this blog, decided to go see the new exhibition at the British Library.

The Happy Worker in Sovdepia, 1918. (From the Electronic Museum of Russian Posters)

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opened at the end of April, and runs until 29 August 2017.  At £13.50, admission is not cheap, but if you go with someone you can get a National Rail 2-for-1 deal (with valid train ticket), or you can get half price admission with a National Art Pass. Honestly, the British Library is one of the few places where I don’t worry overmuch about the expenditure, because I know their exhibitions are of a consistently high quality (that said, I did still use the 2-for-1, because £6.75 buys a lot of bagels).

The Godless at the Workbench, 1923.

And indeed, “Russian Revolution” was no exception. In keeping with the theme, most of the decor inside the exhibit space was red. After an initial slog through a slow-moving crowd of people to look at the displays in the first section, I was relieved that the exhibit then took me through a maze-like structure of red plastic-mounted photographs (it looked better than my description makes it sound) of the Revolution with displays hidden here and there amongst the structure, which seemed to really cut down on crowds building up for some reason (maybe people were getting lost? Though it wasn’t really a maze…).

Retribution for the Reds, 1919-1920. (From the Hoover Poster Collection)

Ostensibly, the exhibition was divided up into sections including “The Tsar and his People,” “Last Days of the Monarchy,” “Civil War,” “The Bolsheviks in Power,” “Threat or Inspiration,” and “Writing the Revolution,” though the ordering was more chronological than anything, which makes sense when you look at most of the section titles. It was only the last two galleries that felt thematically defined, and saying “gallery” where “Writing the Revolution” is concerned is a bit of a stretch, because I’m pretty sure it was just a single glass case full of books at the end of the exhibition.

Retreating, the Whites are Burning Crops, 1918-1920. (From the British Library)

As is typical with British Library exhibitions, there were some fantastic artefacts here (I’d love to have a look in the bowels of their archives…I can only imagine the incredible stuff they’ve got stashed away). Near the start of the exhibit, there was a first edition of the Communist Manifesto (which I couldn’t see very well because some guy was hogging the case) and Lenin’s original Reader’s Ticket from the British Library, issued to him under the alias Jacob Richter, which he used when he was living in London in 1902 whilst on the run from the Tsarist Police, as well as the letter he wrote to the library requesting the pass. I’ll say this for the man; he might have turned into a monster once he got into power, but he did have extremely clear handwriting.

Rasputin, New Starviken, April 1917. (From the British Library)

There were also various copies of rare Soviet books that had been mostly destroyed during purges, maps galore, letters from other prominent Bolsheviks (though not as easy to read as Lenin’s, since they were written in Russian), and even some ceramics (just as good as the plate I mentioned in “Imagine Moscow”), but the best thing by far was the propaganda posters. They shoved so many of them in here, and they were all really fantastic, as you may have been noticing (because the BL never allows photography inside their exhibitions, I’ve chosen to illustrate the post with some of them, with sources credited when known). My favourite was probably the one with a very crudely drawn Rasputin (see above), which was actually from the cover of a satirical magazine, but they were all great, though the Trotsky one below is disturbingly anti-Semitic.

Peace and Freedom in Soviet Russia, Trotsky the Red Devil.

I have to admit, when it comes to analysing the exhibition as a whole, rather than just describing individual objects, it’s been a bit of a struggle to put into words exactly what I mean (I’ve re-written this paragraph about ten times, and it’s still not great). Although the exhibition undoubtedly did have a narrative, it was also simultaneously perhaps a bit vague? I guess what I mean is that if I had to grade the content of the exhibition as if it were an essay, it would earn some points for stating all the relevant facts, but maybe lose points on interpretation. Basically, the exhibition did a great job of explaining the many catalysts that led to the Revolution (though perhaps another problem was that they didn’t make enough of a distinction between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, or spend enough time explaining what happened in the period between the two), but I still left feeling unsure how they all came together to give Russia that one last push into open revolt, and how the Bolsheviks managed to step in and seize power when some of the earlier experiments in moving away from autocracy were more democratic in nature (it is thus perhaps unsurprising that I only got a “C” when I took Russian history). However, I don’t know if this is an issue with the exhibit so much as my own reading comprehension (or lack thereof), since I did skim over some of the captions in places, or maybe my lack of understanding is because in retrospect, it’s difficult to see the appeal of communism. Which is not to say that I didn’t learn anything (the section about the civil wars was particularly interesting, because I’d somehow missed all that in that Russian history class (and now I’m kind of impressed that I even managed to pull off that “C.” I probably deserved a “D.”)), just that I felt that the exhibition could have done with more explanation in places, though then I suppose it would run the risk of being overly text-heavy.

Go and Save Them! 1918-20. (From the V&A)

Other than that quibble, and my issue with the layout of the first section of the exhibit space, which caused traffic to block up (especially when some woman decided to stop right in front of the display case and watch a video, instead of maybe stepping slightly to the side so she would have been out of everyone’s way), there was still so much to like here. The exhibit managed to pinpoint exactly when the Bolsheviks turned from all their lofty ideals and theories (which, let’s face it, were ultimately about them maintaining power) into just massacring people who disagreed with them, and it was chilling, but also fascinating. The artefacts chosen were also excellent, and the whole exhibition really did paint a magnificent picture of what went wrong with Russia in both the Tsarist and early Soviet days, even though I’m still hazy on some of the finer details of the Russian Revolution itself. 4/5 – a very enjoyable way to spend a day off!

Dimitrii Moor, Alphabet of a Red Army Soldier 1921. Text Reads: The earth burns, set alight by the worker’s hand. (From the British Library)

 

London: The National Army Museum

After being closed for several years for a complete revamp, the National Army Museum has recently re-opened. Having never visited the old museum, I can’t say how this new version compares, but I can at least give you my thoughts (of which there are many) on the new museum.

  

I should confess that I have a bit of a history with the National Army Museum. I very briefly volunteered there a couple of years ago, but compared to the work I did on the local history project I also volunteered on, it felt like the stuff they were giving me to do was simply busywork, and I couldn’t stand working in an open plan office. So I quit after about three weeks, but in my short time there, I had gotten to look at a plan of the new museum, so I had some idea of what to expect.

  

Sadly, the grand vision I had viewed didn’t seem to reflect the reality. First of all, there was the museum building itself. It is not attractive, but under ordinary circumstances, this might have gone unnoticed. However, the museum is located right next door to the stately Royal Hospital Chelsea (see above images), which in addition to being huge, is also very easy on the eyes (and contains a number of intriguing sights that are visible from outside the gates, including a statue of a Chelsea pensioner raising his cane in the air, as though he’s about to go Andrew Jackson on somebody’s ass, a cemetery with a tombstone featuring a carving of a helmet from a suit of medieval armour, a bench with a sculpture of a Chelsea pensioner dozing on it, an adorable statue of an elephant dressed as a Chelsea pensioner, and of course the pensioners themselves, who still wear those distinctive long red coats when they’re out and about), so the museum’s ugly modern boxiness is glaring in comparison. Clearly, any renovations only took place on the museum’s interior.

  

And unfortunately, the interior didn’t immediately catch the eye either. While I did enjoy the statue of a desert rat that I spotted on the lower level, and there are bright colours in some of the upstairs galleries, the thing directly in my eye line upon entering was the museum’s shop, which was small and drab (the museum is free, so you would think they’d make more of an effort in the shop to try to bring in some revenue). The museum is spread out over 3-5 floors (depends whether you count sub-floors as their own floors, or whether the cafe, which was on its own level, counts as a floor), but the only actual gallery on the ground floor is the “Soldier Gallery.” This is one of the galleries I vaguely recalled reading about when I was a volunteer, the conceit behind it being that people enter through one of two gates, based on whether or not they think they could be a soldier, learn more about the life of a soldier in the gallery, and then have to go through the same gates at the end of the gallery, so they can see if their answers changed.

  

I think this probably worked better in concept than in execution, because I was not overly impressed with this gallery. The most immediately obvious problem was with the appearance of the space itself. There was very dim lighting in here, which gave everything in the gallery a weird and unpleasant yellowish-brown tinge.  The other problem was what I perceived as the dumbing-down of the museum. Most of the text in here was fairly limited, and included quotes from soldiers on these huge, large-print signs. Which I suppose is nice for people with visual impairments, but it made me feel like I was walking through the museum equivalent of a picture-book (not knocking picture-books (especially Frog and Toad, who are the subjects of my latest tattoo), I just expect a little more text in a museum that wants to attract adults as well as children). They had clearly tried to introduce a fair number of interactive elements, but the trouble was that most of them were being repaired, or were in use by the many, many children also visiting that day.

  

The other issue was that though this section had a number of fascinating objects, the museum appeared to be doing their best to hide them!  Instead of being an artefact-driven exhibit, this was image driven, and all of the actual artefacts were shunted off into ill-lit cases around the gallery, so photographs, computer screens, and those huge text bubbles could take centre-stage.

  

This was a real shame, because among the object cases, I found stuff like a penny that had saved a soldier’s life by taking the impact of a bullet during the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington’s shaving mirror, the actual frost-bitten fingers and toes of a soldier who’d lost them whilst climbing Everest, the taxidermied body of Crimean Tom (a cat from the Crimean War), and the leg bones of a soldier who’d had his leg amputated and saved the bones so he could be buried with them when he died (so I have no idea why they’re in this museum). Unfortunately, all these awesome things were accompanied by the bare minimum of text, and in many instances, I had to hunt to find even that, because all the information was placed to the sides of the cases, with no numbering put on the objects, so you had to squint at the pictures to match things up. Not an easy feat given the poor lighting, and objects like the leg bones and bullet, for example, were hidden away in a hallway so dark that I’m pretty sure they didn’t want visitors to actually notice them at all.

  

Progressing upstairs, we entered the art gallery, which despite also being very dark (perhaps more understandable in this case to preserve the paintings, though most art museums manage to have brighter lights than this), was probably the best gallery in the museum, because it felt the most like a traditional museum gallery. Also, there were a lot of really cool paintings, including many from the First World War, and even a couple from the American Revolution, which I was even more interested to see than usual, because I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent Valiant Ambition at the time. No complaints about this gallery!

  

However, it segued into a gallery about the history of the British Army, and there were more issues here. For something that was meant to tell us the history of the army, it was remarkably light on actual history. There was a timeline at the start, but it petered out somewhere around James II, and I never really learned how the army evolved into what it is today (and all the difficult-to-decipher pie charts on the wall (they used too many damn colours!) didn’t really help matters). Most of the exhibit was dominated by these cases full of mannequins wearing various regimental uniforms (a small child was terrified by them, and refused to approach them, which I am mean enough to have found funny), but only the type of uniform was listed on the case; for additional information, you had to turn to a computer screen.

  

The same applied to the artefact cases on the back wall, only they were even worse. These didn’t have an object label of any kind, it was ALL on the computer screens. This is the same issue I had with the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, but I’ll repeat myself, because that was a while ago. While trying to boost interactivity with touchscreens is great in theory, the problem is that if you only have one screen for each display, only one person can look at it at a time, and if they hog it, as people are wont to do, you won’t get to learn anything. Also, the contents of each case were divided between a couple of different touchscreens, and it wasn’t always clear which screen you needed to scroll through to get the information you wanted. I can’t help but feel that a much more sensible solution would be to put basic information right on the cases, like a normal, old-school museum, and have additional information available on touchscreens, for those who want it. That way everyone will at least have some idea of what they’re looking at, and will have the option of learning more if they choose to do so.

  

There were two galleries on the top floor, “Society and the Army,” and “Battle.” I preferred “Society”, because it was the only space in the museum that was well-lit (you could actually read all the labels, and everything had a label! Brilliant!), and I have to confess that getting to try on a royal guard outfit, and looking at that hilarious Sgt. Potato poster didn’t hurt either. I’m not quite sure if they did enough to show how the army impacts the rest of society when there’s not a war on, but it was a better attempt than most of the other galleries.

 

“Battle,” I feel, was mostly aimed at people who really like looking at heavy-duty weaponry and already know a fair bit about how those weapons work, because the labels were fairly basic and left me in the dark (literally, because we were back to the poorly lit galleries again), and that’s what 70% of the cases in here contained, but there was some cool stuff in the pre-WWI sections, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars case, because it contained not only the amputation saw used to hack off the leg of the Earl of Uxbridge (he of the famous (possibly apocryphal) anecdote whereupon he remarked to Wellington after being shot, “By God sir, I’ve lost my leg,” and Wellington replied, “By God sir, so you have.” Uxbridge also apparently remained “composed” throughout the anaesthetic-less operation, only remarking that the saw seemed rather blunt) and a bloody glove used to staunch the flow during his amputation, but also the skeleton of one of Napoleon’s actual horses! And, this was one place where there was a brief mention of British atrocities committed during various imperial wars (which otherwise pretty much went unmentioned). There were also a number of activities that looked really fun here, such as a drum where you could practice various cadences, a cut-out tank to crawl into that appeared to have some kind of video game inside, and some muskets where you could see how fast you could reload and shoot ten bullets, but yet again, these were all being monopolised by children, or, in the case of the guns, not even working.

  

The final gallery was “Insight,” located in the lower ground floor. If it hadn’t been for the desert rat sculpture also down there, I’d say don’t waste your time – it was pretty lame (I don’t even have any photos from it, the ones below are from “Battle”). It mainly just consisted of maps on the walls showing where British Army bases are located around the world (I didn’t even realise this at first, because it wasn’t explained until halfway through the exhibit) and a handful of objects, and again, very crappy lighting (the museum’s main decorative scheme, I guess).

  

Because I hadn’t visited the National Army Museum in its previous form, I can’t say for sure if it’s actually worse now than it was before, but I strongly suspect that may be the case, given how much I enjoy an old-fashioned military museum (see the Winchester museums, the Army Medical Services Museum, et al, for evidence of this). I think it would have been so much nicer if they had a couple highly interactive, child-friendly galleries, but then kept a couple old-fashioned galleries, with decent lighting and labels, for all the amazing objects in their collection, so that people who wanted to could actually admire and learn something about these objects in peace. While I understand that interactivity is what packs in the crowds these days, having interactive elements at the expense of actual history not only dumbs down a museum – it also makes it lose part of its essence.  If the National Army Museum is an example of where most museums are headed, then that is truly a depressing thought, since I learned remarkably little here. 4/5 solely for the awesomeness of the objects in their collection, but only 2/5 for how they were presented, so I guess 3/5 overall. With the army’s fascinating history (which you wouldn’t know from visiting this museum), and all the money undoubtedly poured into this, this museum should be so, so much better than it is.

London: “Imagine Moscow” @ the Design Museum

In my original post on the Design Museum, I predicted that I would probably go back when “Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution” opened, and indeed, here we are (it opened 15 March, and runs until 4 June 2017). Unfortunately, my National Art Pass expired since my last visit, but there was no way I was about to pay £9 for what I imagined would be a small exhibit, so Marcus and I bought a couple of cheap single tickets into town so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1 offer.

“Imagine Moscow” is inside the Design Museum’s basement gallery, which is certainly a heck of a lot easier to get to than the ones upstairs (I guess you get what you pay for). I’m happy to report that the toilets down here are also even closer to the ones in Bob’s Burgers than the ones by the upstairs gallery (still not quite there, but they were slightly claustrophobic completely walled-in greyish green cubicles). No photography was allowed inside the exhibition, and there’s no exhibition guide available online (I think they want you to buy one), so this is going to be based on my probably faulty memory, but here goes.

After the Russian Revolution, Lenin, and later Stalin, wanted to redesign Moscow in a more communist style, and this exhibition showcases six of these proposed designs (which obviously never came to fruition), illustrated with sketches, blueprints, and other Soviet art (which was the part I was most excited about). It was all contained within one large room/gallery, but the way to move around it was somewhat confusing. From the very vague map on the wall (I wasn’t even totally sure where the entrance was on the map, so I didn’t really know where I was supposed to start), I got the impression that we were supposed to go around in a clockwise manner, but when I got to the opposite end of the exhibit, I found out that was where the exit was, so I ended up having to backtrack to see everything, and walk through the exhibit again to get out. So don’t do what I did, is what I’m saying…leave Lenin’s Tomb (or whatever it was called) for last.

As you can probably tell from the photos on the exhibition website (if you clicked the link at the start), there wasn’t a terribly cheery atmosphere (not surprising given the subject matter). The walls were all a dreary black, and the lighting was dim, so it was kind of a downer being inside.  I also felt that many of the captions were awkward to read…instead of putting labels beneath each item, they put them all together in the corners of each room, so you’d sometimes be reading a label for things that were on a different wall, which made it hard to keep track of what you were actually looking at. Still, the information that was provided was very interesting.

For example, I learned that some of the plans for Moscow included a city in the sky, which would have consisted solely of skyscrapers, though judging by the sketches, I’m not even sure that they would have been structurally sound; a somewhat regimented sounding “holiday city,” built on the Black Sea, where people would be served in the cafeteria by conveyor belt, so even on holiday they weren’t being inefficient; and a library city.  Clearly, it was the last plan I was most intrigued by.  I hadn’t realised, given how repressive Stalin et al were, that early Soviets put an incredibly high value on education; they even turned trains into mobile libraries, so that everyone could access knowledge, and printed books in over a hundred languages, so that all the people of the diverse regions that made up the USSR could read them. Of course, the Soviets being the Soviets, there was a more sinister ulterior motive behind this, which was that if everyone could read the same material, they would buy into the propaganda, and all begin to think the same, but still, I love the idea of a library train, and there was some fantastic posters here that they used to encourage people to read.

I was also fascinated by the idea of the “Palace of the Soviets.” This was meant to have been built on the site of a beautiful, historic Russian Orthodox Church that Stalin had dynamited, and would have been a “shrine” to communism. However, Stalin died before it was built, and Khrushchev basically said “to hell with it” and built a giant open air swimming pool instead, which, in anywhere but Russia, would have sounded much more fun.  They had a video of people swimming in it, and there was actual snow and ice all around the pool.  I mean, I assume it was heated, because there was steam rising off the water, but it still looked awful. The pool was closed in the ’80s, and after the fall of communism, the Russian Orthodox Church received permission to the rebuild the original church, so I guess it kind of has a happy ending (not that I’m into religion, but I do support historic buildings!).

The communal living plans were equally intriguing, not least for the planned daily schedule posted on the wall.  There were a number of things I found perplexing, from the scanty amount of time allocated to meals and exercise (most of the day was meant to be spent working down the mines), to the fact that they got up at 6, worked eight hours, but didn’t have lunch until 3 (they must have been starving!) and dinner at 9:25, even though they were meant to go to bed at 10 (maybe Soviets had tougher digestive systems, but for me, eating right before bed is a recipe for indigestion and poor sleep), but the oddest of all was that they only got five minutes for a shower, but were meant to spend 8 minutes washing their hands at one point! I wouldn’t be surprised if the creator of that schedule ended up being “purged.” Communal living was meant to liberate women from the drudgery of housework, so that they could take jobs outside the home, but of course there was a more sinister motive to this too. The ultimate aim was the destruction of the family unit, which was seen as a threat to communism, and the establishment of communal child-rearing, so that everyone’s first loyalty would be to the state. Fortunately, this was mostly a failure.

Though there wasn’t quite as much Soviet art here as I was hoping, most of the objects chosen were pretty great (even if it wasn’t clear what some of them were thanks to the confusing labelling). My favourite thing was probably a plate that said in Russian something to the effect of “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat,” but it was on this colourful, fun-looking children’s plate with a cartoony picture of a smiling Lenin right in the middle. Talk about mixed messages. I loved most of the posters too (you can see some of them on the exhibition website), especially the ones showcasing powerful women workers (of course employed in grim looking factory work). The most striking piece had to be the giant copy of Lenin’s finger that was originally meant to have been part of an enormous statue of Lenin that would have stood atop his tomb and pointed out across Moscow. The finger was at least ten feet long.

Although the exhibition wasn’t very large, and certainly not worth £9, I definitely got my £4.50’s worth out of it.  It didn’t rely too much on visitors having any background knowledge of architecture or design (which I lack, so I was glad this wasn’t the case) and there were some absolutely fascinating facts in here, and it was neat to see the city that could have been (though fortunately wasn’t because most of the plans looked awful), though I think I would have gotten more out of it if I’d ever actually been to Moscow. Other than the famous landmarks like the Kremlin and the Red Square and St. Basil’s and stuff, I have very little idea what modern Moscow actually looks like, and they didn’t have much information on this inside the exhibit, so I couldn’t really compare things to see what the difference would have been.  But I’ll still give it a 3.5/5, and continue hoping that library trains become a reality in Britain (minus any dystopian ulterior motives, of course).

 

Cambridge: The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

So you might have been thinking that the Sedgwick Museum was my last Cambridge post, since I mentioned we dropped in on the way back to the station, but nope! I meant to write this post weeks ago, right after I went to Cambridge, which is when I wrote the other posts, but I ran out of time, and then I started my job and it totally slipped my mind. But (obviously) I remembered eventually (seeing the pictures in my media library when I went to upload new stuff helped), so here it is. And I promise, then I’m done with Cambridge (at least for the foreseeable future)!

  

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is right around the corner from the Whipple Museum, and next door to the Sedgwick, so it’s part of the whole museum district of Cambridge (the Polar Museum and the Fitzwilliam stand alone). It is also free, like every other Cambridge University museum I’ve been talking about. When we walked in, we had the misfortune of being right behind a group of students who were being given a tour around the museum (and I felt really bad for their guide. When she asked if anyone was interested in archaeology or anthropology, no one raised their hands. Don’t young people watch Indiana Jones anymore? I mean, I know those films don’t reflect reality, but I don’t know how anyone could watch Raiders and not think archaeology is cool), so we decided to go in the opposite direction, and start with the temporary exhibition “Another India,” about artefacts from minority populations in India.

  

This is definitely just my own ignorance showing, but I never realised that India still had native, tribal populations, so I was really intrigued and eager to learn more about them. The exhibition talked about the impact colonialism had on them, as well as displaying a really striking range of artefacts. I particularly loved the painted tiles, and the head-taker’s ornament (that skull thing), both of which are shown above, but I seem to remember it being kind of dark in there, so you couldn’t read the labels unless you were right on top of them.

  

We then proceeded up to the first floor, which reminded me of nothing so much as a condensed version of the Horniman (the anthropological bits of the Horniman, anyway). It contained artefacts from cultures all around the world, arranged roughly geographically. There was simply too much to see in the limited time available to us, so I focused on things that I thought were neat (which I guess is what I always do, but even more so when there’s a time crunch). I love Day of the Dead figures, and some of the ones they had here were pretty great (I bought a whole diorama of Day of the Dead mariachi figurines when I was in Tijuana years ago, but the glass on the case broke on the flight home, which I think my mother used as an excuse to throw them out a few years later, after I moved to Britain. They were awesome though. I’d like to get more!).

  

Unfortunately, the students followed us up here pretty shortly after, and though the guide did a great job of trying to keep them corralled in the middle of the room (I should add that these were presumably Cambridge students, or at least of a high school-university age (I am real bad at gauging the ages of people younger than me), so yeah, it’s not like they were little kids or anything), but they were still wandering around a bit being distracting, and it was time to move on. It was clear before leaving though, that this was the oldest gallery of the museum (in terms of the set-up of the displays), and probably the only section (save for the temporary exhibit) with adequate labelling, so I feel like I could have learned a lot if I had more time. Also please note the awesome totem pole that dominates the building (it can be seen in the opening picture); the guide was asking the students to guess the animals on it as we were leaving, and they got them all hilariously wrong (c’mon, at least pick animals that actually live in the Pacific Northwest!).

  

The second, and final floor, was probably the most intriguing floor in concept, if not in execution. The premise here was that anthropology and archaeology are subjects that are in constant flux, and that anthropology in particular has come a long way from its original, often racist roots, and as such, the museum was a work in progress, and the visitor should play a role in deciding what its future should be. So they asked you to look around, and then fill out a survey about your experience (though there was only one other survey in the box when I put mine in, and this at the end of the day, so I don’t know how successful this has been. Maybe if they made an actual volunteer hand them out, instead of leaving people to their own devices, so they’d feel guilted into doing it).

  

Anyway, this floor was thus mainly just an assortment of objects, grouped by type, and beautifully arranged in cases together, but lacking pretty much any labels at all, with a few exceptions for things like African masks, and the Mayan (?) head shown above right. (I think of him as Olmec, but only because that was the name of the talking head at the entrance to the Hidden Temple. I don’t know whether it was actually Olmec in origin, because I don’t have a picture of its caption (also, if I could go on any stupid game show ever, my first choice would definitely be Legends of the Hidden Temple, followed by Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, which is much better than the American version. I watched Legends every day when I was a kid)). So obviously it would have been much improved by better signage (which I guess is the whole thing they were trying to get away from, because someone talking about other cultures will always lack innate understanding of those cultures, and thus misinterpret things, but you still need to give people some context), which is more or less what I said in my survey (I also went on about Indiana Jones for a bit, because they are like my favourite movies (except that one we don’t talk about)).

  

We finished up by seeing the things on the ground floor that we missed on our way in, because students. These included a neat skeleton in a stone coffin, along with the bones of a mouse and shrew who had gnawed the body, and a bust of Jupiter (not Jesus, though they look similar, which probably makes sense, given how much of Christianity is pieced together from other religions), as well as other less interesting Roman bits and pieces that had been recovered from around Cambridge. Though this museum was basically fine, I did find it somewhat disappointing compared to what I was expecting (the Horniman sets a high bar, as does the Field Museum is Chicago, which I haven’t actually been to since I was a teenager, but remember fondly). I give them points for attempting to be culturally sensitive, but I don’t think that should come at the price of providing adequate signage in some of the galleries. 3/5.

Cambridge: The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

I have to confess that the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences was pretty much my concession to Marcus. Not that he didn’t enjoy all the other museums, but the Sedgwick is one I probably would have skipped if I was on my own, because other than the occasional dinosaur bone, earth science doesn’t exactly thrill me. But it was right next to the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, and on the way back to the train station, so there was really no reason not to visit (note that unlike the Whipple Museum, for the Sedgwick, you really do have to walk around to the back for the main entrance, but it’s worth it for the splendid staircases).

  

Except for the impossible-to-miss Iguanodon, first impressions of the Sedgwick were not great. It appeared to be a room full of case after case of well, rocks. Still, I spent a while studying the Iguanodon, and was interested to learn that while undoubtedly more accurate than Owen’s hilarious, albeit rather charming version at Crystal Palace, the Iguanodon at the Sedgwick is also outdated according to modern theories that have the Iguanodon walking on four legs, rather than two. However, they’re chosen to leave him in his current position to show how theories change over time, and he certainly looks more imposing this way.

  

Happily, after quickly making my way past all those cases of rocks, I was excited to find that there was more dinosaur stuff at the back of the room, including the excellent painting shown above, and the giant Plesiosaur on the right that looks a lot like how the Loch Ness monster is meant to look, if, you know, it was real (which it’s not). Even cooler was the fact that a lot of these fossils were purchased from the famous Mary Anning.

  

I was also glad that there was a whole other section to the museum, completely hidden from the entrance, that contained more interesting stuff than just rocks. Such as loads of plant and animal fossils, included some collected by Charles Darwin and other famous geologists, and even re-creations of what some of the animals would have looked like. Check out the largest spider that ever lived, which I am clearly more than a little disgusted by. I don’t even know how you would go about killing something like that…the horrible crunchy squish that would result makes me feel a little sick just thinking about it.

  

But the best section was still to come. It was the second half of the first room, which we came back to last. First of all, there were some more awesome skeletons, including one of a hippo fossil found near Cambridge (because 120,000 years ago, the same species of hippo that now lives only in Africa used to live in Britain as well), and a Giant Irish Elk.

  

Then, there was a whole display devoted to Charles Darwin (in addition to the fossils he collected that I already mentioned). It detailed his years as a geologist, which is what he was at the start of his career (he also attended Cambridge, which is why he was featured here) before getting into biology, and focused mainly on his voyage on the Beagle, with many, many artefacts from that voyage (he distributed his collection to various friends upon his return, but a lot of the things he collected seemed to have ultimately ended up here). I’d just been reading up on Darwin (well, sort of indirectly through the story of his beard in Victorians Undone, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Victorians, medical history, or the history of the body generally), so I thought this was all really interesting, and quite relevant to what I’d just been reading, since it talked a bit about his health complaints.

  

The final section of interest (to me anyway, though I think Marcus was most impressed by the collection of rock hammers belonging to famous geologists) was a whole case full of information about the role of the members of the Sedgwick Club in WWI (the Sedgwick Club being Cambridge’s geological society named after pioneering geologist Adam Sedgwick, who is also the museum’s eponym). It talked about how geologists were used to supervise tunneling operations throughout the war, since Flanders has different bedrock than France, and different methods were needed for each type, especially when calculating the number of explosives needed to blow up German trenches from underneath!  It also mentioned a few prominent geologists from that time, and how they served; the one that caught my eye was Gertrude Elles. Elles grew up in Wimbledon, which was neat in itself (since I live there), but she was also remarkable for being a female geologist in the Edwardian era, and for serving with the Red Cross during the war, for which she was awarded an MBE.

  

Even though I wasn’t the most enthusiastic visitor at first, by the end I was glad that we had found things we could both enjoy in the museum, and I was excited that I even managed to learn something new about the First World War!  Plus everyone likes dinosaurs (don’t they?!) and the museum is of course free, so it’s certainly worth at least dropping in, because you might discover something interesting (amongst all the rocks, or maybe even the rocks themselves if that’s what floats your boat). 3.5/5, better than expected, and worth the effort just for those fabulous bison on the staircase.

Cambridge: The Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Though I’m really more of a fan of medical history, I also try to show an interest in the history of science from time to time (admittedly not enough of an interest to do that Ph.D I was planning on when I realised there’d be only history of science and no history of medicine classes available for my first year, but still, an interest), so I definitely wanted to see the Whipple Museum of the History of Science whilst we were in Cambridge.

  

We were a little confused by the entrance; because the museum is located inside the Physical Chemistry building, we thought maybe the main entrance was for students only, and we were meant to use the back entrance for the museum (incidentally, I still don’t really understand how the whole Oxbridge system works. I thought students joined a college, and only took classes within that college, but it appears they just have some normal university buildings as well. I guess it’s one of those weird upper class British things I’ll never wrap my head around. Like their fondness for horse racing. Or fox hunting). So we walked all the way around, passing the Museum of Zoology on the way (which had an excellent whale skeleton that we could see from the outside, but it’s under construction so not open to the public at the moment), and ended up having to ring a doorbell for access, only to be gently chided by a somewhat annoyed man who obviously had to run from somewhere upstairs to answer the door. So learn from our mistake, and just go in the main entrance, unless you need step-free or group access. Then you still have to go around to the back.

  

Due to what was apparently our foolish misstep, we had to walk through the whole museum to get to the room where we were meant to start, though honestly I don’t think it mattered that much, because lots of the collection was just miscellaneous crap, with no real narrative (also, the museum’s not that big). And I’m not just using “crap” here to be pejorative; the museum itself admitted that some of its collections were junk.  Like a display of shitty plastic protractors that got taken off the market after a teacher realised they were basically worthless, and were screwing up students’ measurements.  Apparently they have a policy of collecting all things relating to the history of science, whether valuable or not, and even proudly displayed an old Telegraph column written by shaggy-haired douche canoe Boris Johnson, criticising their collecting policy. I can’t help but feel that if BoJo thinks it’s a bad idea, then it probably isn’t.

 

But amongst the junk, there were also some beautiful and historically important artefacts. Like one of Herschel’s telescopes (I went to his house, remember?). Or the grand orrery (a moving model of the motions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun) which is the dome-shaped thing on the right side of the first picture in this post. They also have a whole collection of frog-related things, which obviously I loved.  And I was really taken with the case of anatomical models, shown above, made by the Frenchman Dr. Auzoux in the 19th century to combat the shortage of bodies for medical dissection.  In retrospect, they were probably my favourite things in the museum.

  

I also really liked the labels in the first room, because they explained in detail why every object had been selected for display, and they had sound reasoning for every choice, even the “junk” (although with the museum being British, I feel like they didn’t actually say “junk.” Rubbish, maybe?). Take that BoJo!

  

Unfortunately, for me anyway, the second gallery wasn’t as successful as the first. It was eye-catching, but it was divided by different branches of science, with loads of the same sort of objects from each branch, and I’m just not enough of a sciencey person to have really understood what they were and given them the appreciation they deserved. I did find a pretty cool anatomical illustration in one of the drawers though.

  

I have to admit, I saw the sign for the “Victorian Parlour” when we walked in (since we came the wrong way), and I was pretty much just biding my time until I could get upstairs and check it out. It promised to be a room where you could interact with everything, and whilst that wasn’t quite true (there were signs on a few things saying not to touch them), they did have a whole chest of drawers full of games + hats to try on, which is always a bonus.  I do think it was aimed at a younger audience than me, because it wasn’t quite as much fun as I was hoping, but I still did try out most of the games, as did an older lady who was there at the same time as me.

  

The Globes Gallery was to the rear of the Victorian Parlour, and it was fine if you like globes. I mean, I like old globes where the countries are all wack, and “here be dragons” and that kind of thing (which I think is actually a modern conceit, but you know what I mean), but most of these were astronomical globes, which don’t do that much for me. I took Astronomy in high school and everything, but I’ve never been that into space, save for a fondness for the moon that probably dates back to my brief Wiccan phase (OK, I have moon sheets on my bed right now, and my favourite commercial when I was a kid was that creepy McDonalds’s moon one (funny because I hated McDonald’s food, even back then), and I even have a small moon tattoo, so I guess I REALLY like the moon, but that still doesn’t mean I’m thrilled by celestial globes).

  

Honestly, aside from the Polar Museum, this was the Cambridge Museum I was most excited about, but unlike the Polar Museum, it didn’t really deliver. I liked the first gallery a lot, but everything else was downhill from there, and it’s probably telling that my favourite objects in here had to do with medical history, because I will always love that more than the history of science. But I could definitely see science enthusiasts enjoying this museum more than I did; it wasn’t bad, it just didn’t thrill me like I was hoping it would. I think it would definitely be improved if instead of the “more is more” approach of the second gallery, they followed the example of the first, and put fewer things out, but with better and more explanatory labels, so that visitors of a less scientific inclination understand what they’re looking at. 3/5.

Don’t stand there confused like I was…this IS the correct entrance.

 

Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam is probably Cambridge University’s most famous museum, and rightly so, because it’s also by far the largest (at least of the ones I visited).  So I knew I wanted to see it, but I also knew that with the busy day we had planned, I wouldn’t have time for a thorough perusal.  Fortunately, the Fitzwilliam is an art museum, and art museums are the easiest sort of museum for me to deal with in a hurry, because there’s usually not much to read, and I’m not really one for contemplating art, so I can breeze through, only stopping to look more closely at things that really catch my eye (especially if the museum is free, like the Fitzwilliam is, so I don’t feel like I have to look at boring things just to get my money’s worth).

  

And the first thing that caught my eye was the museum’s interior, which, as you can probably tell from the photo opening the post, is incredibly ornate, and really rather gorgeous.  The second thing I noticed were the large cabinets meant to house Wunderkammer, which were prominently displayed in the first room. Because I am way more into cabinets of curiosity than old European paintings, I spent a healthy amount of time studying the inlay on these cabinets, as well as the treasures that would have been kept within (which included a wee ceramic frog).

  

I was pretty much able to dispense with the whole of the first floor in record time, because other than the Wunderkammer, it was all just boring old-ass European art (much of it religious). OK, there was a bit of modern art too, but I’m not any more a fan of that than I am of Italian Renaissance painters, so I didn’t feel the need to linger.

  

The only significant amount of text up here was in the temporary exhibit “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy,” which runs til 4 June, and did not allow photography.  This was a fairly interesting exhibit about how Catholicism crept into every aspect of early modern Italian life, including the home. The most memorable object in here was a creepily realistic Baby Jesus doll that was made for some sort of famous nun hundreds of years ago (I can’t remember the exact details) and resided at the convent until just a couple of years ago, when the convent was destroyed by one of the recent earthquakes. However, the doll survived, and the nuns agreed to lend it to the exhibition, so here it was, staring up at us eerily like a real baby.

 

Moving on…I need to talk about the gallery full of English ceramics on the ground floor, because this was the best part of the museum by far (the Fitzwilliam’s ceramics game was strong in general, as you can probably tell from the Italian-made bust of an old woman a few paragraphs up).  I already had a fondness for antique Staffordshire figurines (I still really want the Red Barn Murder set, but considering one sold for almost £12,000 in 2010, that’s never going to happen), and also royal memorabilia, specifically really old and crudely drawn memorabilia, like the plates shown above, so my expectations were high as soon as we entered this gallery and I got a taste of what was inside, and happily, the Fitzwilliam exceeded them.

  

My favourite royal family plate had to have been the William and Mary one, above left.  I’m hard pressed to even tell you which one is William and which is Mary (OK, I think William is the one with the moustache, but still). There were so many fabulous things here that I could have happily spent my entire visit in just this room. I want to show you everything, but I’ll restrain myself to just a few more pictures (and how sad are those poor chained bears?  I want to free them!).

  

Here’s some of those Staffordshire figurines I was talking about. I have a crude knock-off of the tiger one, but in mine, it looks as though the tiger is merely sniffing the soldier’s head, rather than an active mauling (though I have to say that the tiger in the real one still looks remarkably sweet for being a vicious man-eater). It’s based on a real-life event that took place in India in 1791 where the soldier, Hugh Monro, later died of his injuries, so I guess I shouldn’t be so flippant about it, but that tiger is very cute.

  

And here is Isaac Newton (looking rather foxy), and a piece showing the murder of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday, though surely if you know anything about his assassination, it’s that he was stabbed in the bath, so I’m not sure why he is fully clothed and just sitting on the ground. Perhaps a nude Marat would have offended Georgian (early Victorian? not sure when it was made) sensibilities too much, but obviously violence was just fine.

  

There was so much more splendid stuff, including a giant owl jar (I’m not including the photo because I’m in it, and I look terrible), but I’d better move on to the rest of the museum. Or what we saw of it anyway; based on what was in the gift shop, I feel sure we missed some kind of modern print room, and there was also a sign in one of the rooms telling us to check out the exhibit on Victorian life in Gallery 33, which I was more than happy to do, but we found Gallery 33, and it only had random (not delightful, or Victorian) pottery in it, so I’m not sure what they were talking about.

  

There was a hall of armour, and though this would probably normally be my favourite part of the museum, it was completely overshadowed by the excellent English ceramics (except for that modern sculpture of a skull in chain mail…it didn’t photograph well on account of the case, but man, it was cool).

  

We concluded our visit with a brief stroll through the Roman and Egyptian stuff.   I normally love sarcophagi, but they simply paled by comparison to those charming damn ceramics (I’m sorry, I realise like 80% of this post is about stupid ceramics. Maybe I should just re-title it “The Pottery Post”).

  

So, while I would like to return to the Fitzwilliam one day and be able to spend more time there, I honestly don’t feel like I missed out on anything on our fairly quick visit (to be fair, we probably spent twice as much time here as any of the other museums, except maybe the Polar Museum, which was small, but I felt like I needed to read everything in it). I’m obviously completely and totally captivated by their ceramics collection (and not just the English stuff; there was a pretty good German room too), but I think there are probably many things here worth seeing, especially for people who know more about art than I do (which frankly, is not that hard to do.  For a museum person, I am shamefully uninterested in most art). 4/5; it’s clearly a world-class museum, but I was really only interested in maybe 40% of what was inside (which is my problem, not theirs, but I’m the one giving the scores). Oh, and don’t miss the decorative gold pineapples on the railings outside the museum – I thought they were a nice touch!