UK

Oxford: Spellbound @ the Ashmolean

Wow, I look truly spellbound by “Spellbound.” Well, I look kind of witchy anyway, which isn’t a bad thing.

Here I am, back to the Ashmolean again, and sooner than I thought I would be. I did say when I posted about it previously that even though I was pretty annoyed with them for not having the dickhead plate there, or at least for not telling people that it was on loan, I was debating going back for the witchcraft exhibition in the fall. And that’s exactly what happened, the lure of witches being far too great to resist. Besides, Halloween events in London were pretty lacking this year – mostly just lectures, which I would normally have attended, but with my brother here the week most of them were on, I skipped them in favour of doing stuff with him (as you’ll see in future posts), since he’s not a big lecture person. And of course I had to have a Halloween post, so “Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft” fits the bill nicely.

  

But I didn’t travel all the way up to Oxford and only see “Spellbound.” Even though we were only visiting Oxford for about four hours on this trip, we still had time to return to the Weston Library. After the success of “Sappho to Suffrage” and “Designing English”, I was keen to see what else they were offering. Well, “Sappho to Suffrage” was still there, but they did have a new display in the foyer called “Unhealthy Times of Kings and Queens” which was right up my alley (I’ve only just realised that British people say “up my street” instead (after co-workers kept sending me links to various weird exhibitions with the subject line, “This looks up your street.” They weren’t wrong), which I can’t quite bring myself to do). This was only one small case, and I would have loved a whole exhibition’s worth, but what was here was pretty great, including little blurbs about various British monarchs and their ailments and plenty of artefacts to illustrate how those illnesses were viewed at the times these monarchs suffered from them. Daniel Lambert (Georgian Britain’s fattest man. I have a Staffordshire knockoff figurine of him) even made an appearance, and I absolutely love the description of him in the pamphlet on display: “a truly astounding prodigy of human dimensions.” It seems a rather nice way of calling someone fat.

  

Rather less excitingly, the main exhibition at the Weston (which has since ended) was on Tolkien. I think I’ve probably said this before, but I hate The Lord of the Rings books, I hate the movies, I hate all of it. A librarian recommended The Hobbit to me when I was a kid, and extremely keen reader though I was (and am), I only made it about a third of the way through before giving up from sheer boredom. I know that many people love Tolkien, and I’m glad that they’re passionate about books and all, but those particular books are just not for me. Nonetheless, we were there, it was free, and so we went.
Pictures were not allowed inside, but it was about what you would expect, both in terms of content, and the people visiting it. I sometimes make a half-assed effort not to say terrible things about people, but this exhibition was full of some real nerds (not that there’s anything wrong with being a nerd, but I just don’t quite get that type of nerd). It was really crowded, and everyone here looked like LotR fans, if you know what I mean. Balding men with long hair (which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn’t. It’s when they’re bald on top but grow the back part really long, kind of like Bill Bailey) and gamer t-shirts, women with hair down to their knees, elf ears, that whole sort of scene. Honestly, I barely looked at the first editions and Tolkien’s drawings of elf-land, or whatever the hell it’s called, because there were so many people crowded in front of them, and since I’ve never read the books, they didn’t mean anything to me. I was more interested in the story of Tolkien’s life, though the exhibit seemed to skip oddly from his student years, to him being a full on professor at Oxford (though I’ve been reading ghost stories all through October, which means a lot of M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and honestly that’s just how it seemed things worked back in the day. Graduate from Oxbridge, and we’ll hand you a professorship that you’ll hold until you die. Must be nice, at least if you ignore all the curses and hauntings in those stories). I did think the letters he used to write to his children, as Santa, were quite sweet, and those were probably the highlight of the exhibition for me.

Matthew Hopkins, self-proclaimed Witch Finder General. This guy was seriously the worst.

Having made it through the Tolkien exhibition in 15 minutes, we had time to head over to a street market for a quick snack (I got polenta fries with pesto, but in retrospect I think I should have gone with the Sri Lankan dhal and potato fry with roti or the vegetable momos) before going to the Ashmolean to see “Spellbound.” It normally costs £12, but we got half price tickets due to the National Art Pass, and I did pre-book, since we were making a special trip to see it. It runs until 6th January 2019. It was on the third floor, and also did not allow photography, more’s the pity, since of course there were some rad things in here (I’ve found a few images online, but not many).

Witches apprehended, examined and executed for notable villanies by them committed both by land and water. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While I liked the very beginning of the exhibition, which tested your belief in superstition by asking you to walk under a ladder, I was a little disappointed with the next gallery, because the focus was more on medieval magical practices, like sorcery, alchemy, the use of saints’ relics, and the like, which are interesting, but not really what I think of when I think of witchcraft, especially as these were usually practiced by men, and were mainly tolerated by the authorities. Nonetheless, there were some fabulous old texts in here, and one of the coolest objects in the entire exhibition: a human heart encased in lead. I also liked the witch quilt (which if I remember correctly, was sewn by female prisoners), and was kind of shocked by the size of the narwhal horns – I hadn’t realised quite how big they were, which made it even more perplexing that people would have thought they were unicorn horns.  How big did people think unicorns would have been?!

Disease of the eye caused by witchcraft.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
I know this shouldn’t make me laugh, but it does, every time.

The next gallery was about the objects that people had concealed in their houses throughout the early modern era to try to protect themselves from witches. Obviously I loved the mummified cat and rat, but all the witches’ bottles and random shoes and things were great too, and it was much more atmospheric in here, being a dimly lit gallery with little cubbyholes that you had to enter to view the artefacts. This was more like what I was expecting, especially Katharine Dowson’s installation at the end of the gallery, called “Concealed Shield.” It was a darkened room with a red-lit glass heart in the centre and red lights playing on the walls, with scrabbling sound effects that were meant to sound like demons. I loved it so much I went inside three times.

Helen Duncan producing ectoplasm and manifesting one of her spirit guides, who looks like he (she?) belongs in the Puppet Museum in Lyon.

The final, and fullest gallery, was more straightforwardly about witches, as in the women (and some men) who were wrongfully executed during the early modern witch craze, and how that formed our idea of what a witch is. There were fantastic prints here, some reminiscent of the ones I saw at the BM a few years ago; a lovely book showing a witch and her toad familiars (I would definitely have toad familiars), and some general witchy objects borrowed from the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, though none quite as cool as the stuff that had been at the Harry Potter exhibition at the BL. There was also a room where you could listen to the “confession” of a woman who was accused of witchcraft (and executed as a result), and another just filled with flames (though I feel I should reiterate this until society at large gets it: English and American witches were hanged, not burned, unless their alleged crime also included petty treason (for women, this meant the murder of their husband). Plenty of people were burned for witchcraft in Scotland and the Continent though, and the point stands that all of those people were wrongfully executed, regardless of how it was done). There was also a small section about mediums, in particular Helen Duncan, who, in the 1940s, was the last person convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 (still on the books until 1951, though the 1735 Act repealed earlier ones that called for executing witches. The 1735 Act merely carried penalties of a fine or prison term). Although Duncan was undoubtedly a fraud (firstly, because ghosts aren’t real (probably), and secondly, once you’ve seen the “ectoplasm,” which was just a piece of fabric, and the pictures of her manifesting it and her “spirit guides,” you have to wonder how anyone took her seriously in the first place), people were angered by the use of this clearly obsolete act in prosecuting Duncan, and it was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which prosecuted them for bilking the gullible out of money, rather than for the practice of witchcraft. I actually loved this section, because ghosts are possibly even more Halloweeny than witches, and having them both here was a nice surprise.
  
The shop had looked great before I went in it, since I spotted some cool looking pentagram candle holders from the door, but it turns out initial appearances were deceiving, as it was mostly full of non-witch related scarves and shawls (not even witch-looking ones, because I am totally down to buy a witch cloak if I can find a suitable (non-Harry Potter related) one). Still, I bought a skeleton pin badge and a couple postcards. I was a little disappointed in the exhibition, because it was too heavy on medieval magic for my taste, and some of the artefacts weren’t exactly what I was hoping for, but I still enjoyed it. It wasn’t as good as the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, or even the Harry Potter exhibition (though it was pleasanter to look around than the latter, being much less crowded), but it was still the kind of exhibition I love seeing in October. 3.5/5. Oh, and we went back through the Ashmolean to check for the dickhead plate, and guess what? It is finally back, and it is so worth seeing in person (actually, you probably already guessed that, due to the positioning of that photo). Happy Halloween everyone!

I spotted this cake in an Oxford bakery, and I kind of wish I’d commissioned one with my face on the decapitated head, though I suppose the one already on it looks a bit like me.

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East Grinstead, Sussex: East Grinstead Museum

I am, as I so often say, motivated mainly by food, and my visit to the East Grinstead Museum is a perfect example of this. We only stopped off because it was on the way to the Kent and Sussex Apple Juice and Cider Centre, which I need to visit every fall to procure cloudy apple juice in an attempt to satiate my autumnal appetites for American-style apple cider (if you get a good cloudy apple, it kind of fills the void, but is nowhere near as full-bodied and delicious as actual cider. Given the prevalence of hard cider here, I still can’t work out why no one seems to utilise all those apple presses to make the soft stuff, but I digress…). I get the impression that East Grinstead got HLF funding at some point in the relatively recent past to redo their museum, both because I had never noticed it before when searching for stuff to do, so it either didn’t exist or looked so unremarkable that I was disinclined to visit; and because the building itself looked relatively new, as did the displays.

  

East Grinstead is a free museum, and we found a car park that was free on Sundays just around the corner, though it appears that the museum itself has limited parking. The museum is all on one level, but the building clearly has an upstairs level (and was purpose built for the museum), so perhaps they only use it for storage or events. Therefore, the museum isn’t all that big, but it is split into two distinct galleries (three, if you count the small display area for art).

  

East Grinstead is remarkable mainly because of the Guinea Pig Club, which was founded here, at Queen Victoria Hospital. The Guinea Pig Club was described as “the most exclusive Club in the world, but the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme,” by their surgeon Archibald McIndoe. Basically, Queen Victoria Hospital was where airmen with severe burns were sent during WWII, and they were guinea pigs in the sense that they underwent radical and pioneering plastic surgery techniques to rebuild their faces. Despite all the pain and mental anguish that these men went through, they still maintained a sense of humour, and thus formed the Guinea Pig Club, primarily as a drinking club, for the men to socialise and talk about their shared experience.

  

Obviously this is an incredible story, and the museum devotes roughly half its space to telling it, including the experiences of some of the men in the club and the surgeons, nurses, and anaesthetists that treated them; and graphic descriptions (and depictions, in the form of wax figures, much to my delight) of the techniques used by McIndoe, including the rather old-fashioned (perfected by Harold Gillies during the First World War) but effective pedicle (see example above), where a strip of skin was cut loose along the bottom and sides, formed into a tube, and stretched and attached to another part of the body, for example, the nose, where a new blood supply would form. Once the new patch of skin had blood flow, the skin would be severed from the original area and reshaped to rebuild the patient’s facial features. While this worked very well, and helped to avoid infection in a pre-antibiotic age (since the inner layer of skin wasn’t exposed to air), it did mean that the patient would have to walk around with their arm attached to their face for a number of weeks (hopefully it was worth it in the end, but you can see why they needed a drinking club!). The residents of East Grinstead did their part to help these men transition back into society – it was known as “the town that didn’t stare,” because the people who lived here made a point to try and treat these men as normally as possible to help their mental recovery, and many of the men said that it was their acceptance by the people of East Grinstead that gave them the courage to resume normal life when they returned home. This was by far the best and most interesting section of the museum, and I really enjoyed hearing the stories of the men, and of course seeing all the wax figure tableaux.

  

The other main gallery of the museum was devoted to the history of East Grinstead, and this was more typical of every local history museum – some local memorabilia, a handful of prehistoric stuff, and some random ye olde artefacts (sorry if I sound less than enthused, but the museum I work for is very much in this vein, so it’s become hard for me to get excited about seeing much the same thing somewhere else, especially if I’m slightly jealous of their much more modern displays). However, this too appeared to have been relatively recently redone, and I did like some of the slightly more interactive elements, like the children’s table full of board games (including Operation, appropriately enough) and the wall of mystery objects where you had to guess their use and then use a mirror to check your answers. I also liked the little Iguanodon figurine (named Iggy) that they used as a sort of mascot on some of the object labels to tell us various facts about the town, apparently chosen because Iguanodon footprints have been discovered in East Grinstead.

  

There was also a small gallery filled with some artwork, as I mentioned earlier, although it was right next to the toilet, so not the easiest place to look around (it actually looked like there might have been more art in an adjacent room, but when I tried the door, it was locked, so perhaps not). But I have to give them props for having a very clean toilet with cute little rhymes in it encouraging visitors to donate to the museum to keep it running (effective too, as I dropped a couple pounds in the donation box on my way out). I also liked all the Guinea Pig Club themed merchandise in the shop, including t-shirts printed with their adorable logo, and especially the stuffed guinea pigs, though I couldn’t really justify buying one. I loved the story of the Guinea Pig Club – I would say that portion of the collection would be the reason to visit, rather than the local history stuff, unless of course you are a resident of East Grinstead (not to be mean about their local history collections, which are perfectly nice, I just think that if you’ve got a story as unique as the Guinea Pig Club, you might as well flaunt it!). 2.5/5.

Brighton: Brighton Fishing Museum

My favourite thing about the Brighton Fishing Museum had to be the sign located on a hut opposite it, reading “Brighton Fishing Museum, Admission Free, ‘Just Opposite this Sign.'” I love that “Just Opposite this Sign” is in quotation marks, and enjoyed trying to figure out why. Is that the museum’s slogan? Did there used to be someone who actually stood inside the hut, directing traffic across to the museum, and it is quoting them? Do they just not know how to use quotation marks? Whatever the explanation, the sign is delightful.

   

Stumbling on this museum was actually a bit of a fluke (ha!), so maybe it’s good they had the sign. I’ve been to all the other museums in Brighton and Hove that I know about, except for the Old Police Cells (because you have to book a tour to those in advance, and they’re only offered at like 10 in the morning), so I wasn’t even planning on visiting a museum – I just wanted ice cream from Boho Gelato! But we were wandering along the beach, eating our ice creams (we actually went to Brighton twice in one week while we had the use of a car, so even though I did have a seagull steal my ice cream cone and eat it in front of me in what was a deeply traumatic experience that I mentioned in my last post, we went to this museum on our first visit when I was able to finish my ice cream unmolested by gulls (that White Chocolate Almond, oh my god)) when we found Brighton Fishing Museum, which I had heard about, but never really knew where it was. Turns out it is in one of the storefronts down on the beach (rather than on the pier), near a disturbing giant prawn statue that I made Marcus stand by for a photo, and once I found it, obviously I was going in, because I can’t resist a museum.
  
The museum itself is rather cute, but has a vague air of dust and abandonment about it. Admission is free, just as the sign promised, and there was no one there to have taken any money anyway, though there was a small museum shop in a hut nearby (a different hut than the one with the sign on it) with a cute dog inside, so I guess they could presumably run over in case of trouble (the human running the shop, not the dog). I’ve still never been to the Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre (that is truly the dream, but I’m afraid to go because I know it will almost invariably disappoint), but I don’t think this museum was anything like on their level (certainly there were no changes in temperature or chances to experience seasickness), nor was it like the Time and Tide Museum or NAVIGO – it was most similar to the Hastings Fishermen’s Museum in both size and scope.
  
The museum consisted of one main room dominated by a fishing boat, with a small anteroom off to one side. It was mostly about the importance of fishing to Brighton, which, since Brighton became a resort town in the late 1700s, is something that is largely overlooked (and indeed, the rich people who flocked to Brighton after it became trendy were themselves not a fan of the fishermen, thinking them unforgivably crude and foul-mouthed, and their trade a smelly and disgusting one (though I’m willing to bet the rich and famous stuffed themselves stupid on fresh seafood whilst in Brighton)).
  
This was a very old fashioned museum, with nothing interactive about it at all, but if the information is interesting enough, sometimes that’s what you want (or expect, certainly). Unfortunately, that wasn’t really the case here. There were a few signs about the fisherman and their trade, and then a lot of old photos and paintings, and a few old wooden signs. I was interested in learning more about the traditional King Neptune celebrations that used to be held in Brighton (I know sailors used to dress up as Neptune and perform some sort of unpleasant initiation rites on their crew members who were crossing the equator for the first time, and I’m not sure whether these were related, or just also Neptune themed because after all, he is ruler of the sea), but they didn’t go into enough detail for my liking – I guess participants just wore themed costumes?
  
There were only a few display cases – most contained model ships, but there was one with a few pots and Staffordshire-esque figurines in it, which were mildly amusing. The boat inside the museum was named the Sussex Maid, but unlike at the Hastings Fishermen’s Museum, you couldn’t actually climb aboard, so it was minimally interesting. I was far more into Big Ron, the boat outside the museum, mainly because of the name!
  
I have to be frank – this really isn’t one of Brighton’s better museums (not that Brighton even has all that many museums, but the Brighton Museum and Booth Museum are both way nicer), and it’s not even one of the better fishing museums I’ve been to. It’s nice that they are trying to preserve this history, but it’s quite forlorn in its current location, and in need of a space that, I don’t know, at least has windows? The hut with the sign really is the best thing about it, but it was free, so at least I can’t complain about having wasted any money. 1.5/5.

He’s definitely plotting something…

This has absolutely no connection with fishing or Brighton, but I went to another event recently that doesn’t really fit in anywhere, and this post is a little short, so I’m going to take the liberty of sticking it in here. I happened to see Phobiarama listed in Time Out as part of the Lift Festival and was intrigued by the idea of a 40 minute ghost train (or laff-in-the-dark ride, as I like to call them. Blame a childhood spent poring over all those “Now-Defunct Amazing Looking Old-Timey Amusement Park” photo books (this is the sort of thing I mean, though not that actual title since it wasn’t published until 2005)), even though I was less keen on the whole political aspect of it (not because I thought I would disagree with the politics, more because I don’t think they really belong in a dark ride). Nonetheless, I booked Marcus and myself a pair of very expensive (£21 each!) tickets.

You get treated to this photo of me and a cowboy in Brighton, because I don’t have one of Phobiarama.

It is located in what appears to be a temporary purpose-built structure (I haven’t explored King’s Cross all that much since its regeneration, so I can’t say what exactly is normally there) in the Granary Square area, and we were asked to queue outside for about twenty minutes before our slot started. I don’t want to give too much away about the actual experience, in case anyone is going and wants to be surprised, but it’s a Dutch concept that was changed a bit for British audiences, I think mainly in terms of the news clips used. You are riding an actual ghost train style car along a track (cars fit two, so go with a friend or prepare to get friendly with a stranger, because they weren’t really all that big), and the ride uses live performers rather than animatronics or wax figures or something (which I might have preferred!). If you don’t like having things jump out at you in the dark (or clowns, or clowns that jump out at you in the dark), this probably isn’t the event for you, but I love it (well, not clowns, but I’m not so scared of them that I can’t deal), so I had a pretty good time, especially when the cars reversed direction and zipped really fast along the track, which was super fun. I thought the end was strange and it made me uncomfortable, since I felt bad for the performers, and the whole experience dragged on longer than it needed to, but overall I’m glad I went, though I think a tenner would have been a fairer price. Really the scariest part of the ride was when the clowns started blowing up balloons, because I hate balloons, but everything else was pretty tame (that said, some woman kept screaming, so maybe it depends on your tolerance). 3/5, maybe worth checking out if it comes to your city if you like this kind of stuff (I’d imagine London is probably booked up at this point).

Ditchling, East Sussex: Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

I was apprehensive about visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft after learning about Eric Gill, who was an incestuous paedophile, at the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place last year.  Gill was part of the Ditchling group of artists, so I knew there was a good chance this museum would have some of his work, but I was hoping that because the Ditchling Museum hosts a number of temporary exhibitions, Gill’s work wouldn’t make up a significant part of what was on display.  I eventually just reckoned that because National Art Pass holders get free admission (normally £6.50), at least I wouldn’t be contributing any money to it if it was Gill-centric (other than what they get from the National Art Fund I guess), so on a recent trip to Brighton, we stopped off there on the way.

  
Despite my apprehensions about what its collection might contain, I have to admit that the Ditchling Museum itself could not have been in a more bucolic setting if it’d tried. You can certainly see why artists were drawn to this part of England (including the non-molester ones who were presumably less driven by being in a secluded environment to hide their goings-on). We parked out front next to a large pond that was home to ducks and no fewer than three terrapins (I was completely charmed by the terrapins, but much like the Ditchling artists’ group itself, all was not as it seemed on the surface, because apparently locals hate the terrapins (a non-native invasive species) because they eat the ducklings (they’re still cute though, but ducklings are cute too. Can’t they all just get along?)), and the museum was set into a hillside in front of a churchyard and pretty old church, with some tables out front for consuming things from the museum’s cafe (the cakes didn’t look half bad, but I had ice cream in Brighton in my sights).
  
So my first impressions of the museum were overall quite positive, especially when I got inside and saw “Belonging with Morag Myerscough,” which was essentially a big colourful swing set decorated with lots of images and signs (the wall you were meant to be staring at had images relating to different musical movements of the last few decades – I loved the pink skeleton). Not being one to turn down a swing, I had a good long sit on here (the scariest part was first sitting down in it, as the swings did tend to get away from you, but it was OK once you were ensconced). I also liked that the public toilet had a blackboard on the back of the door for doodling, even though touching the chalk was a bit gross (I did wash my hands after, and the toilet was far enough from the door that you couldn’t actually use it whilst you were on the toilet, but it was still kind of unsanitary, albeit fun if you didn’t think about it too much).
  
But then I went into the main gallery, and was met with lots of Gill’s artwork, accompanied by virtually no explanation of who Gill was, nor, most importantly, of the terrible things he had done. This seemed quite disingenuous to me, because context is everything in art history – even if Gill hadn’t been a horrible person, I still would have liked to have seen some biographical information so I could understand what inspired him – this felt like they were trying to keep your view on the art from being altered by the kind of man Gill was. This isn’t to say that I hated everything in this section – I liked some of the pieces by other Ditchling artists, especially the little wooden bear made for a man who had broken his leg, but they really needed to have some kind of background explanation on the community as well. After seeing two exhibitions on them, I still don’t fully understand their connection to Catholicism, but clearly there was some Catholic thread running through the artists’ group here, because much of their work was produced for churches, and the other displays here also had Catholic connections.
  
The temporary exhibition when I visited (which runs until 14 October) featured art by Corita Kent, who was an American printmaker active in the mid-20th century. The most interesting thing about Corita is that she was actually a nun for most of her career (she eventually left the convent in the 1970s, and died from cancer only about ten years later), but still managed to produce bold, fairly controversial work, especially her pieces protesting the Vietnam War (she wasn’t the only member of the clergy doing so (I don’t think nuns are technically clergy, but I forget what heading they do fall under and you know what I mean. They’re not laypeople anyway) – a number of priests were also arrested for their role in anti-war protests). There were actually a series of letters here between her archbishop and mother superior discussing how controversial her work was – basically, the church wanted her to knock it off, but her mother superior defended her, saying that although she didn’t agree with many of Corita’s pieces, she thought she had a real talent. It’s interesting that though we think of nuns as being quite conservative, historically, they have been a refuge for some very progressive women – even as late as the 1960s (or the 1990s, if you count Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. I’m going to choose to, because that’s seriously one of my favourite movies. I’m such a dork).
  
Her work ranged from the expected religion-inspired pieces to ones more secular in nature, especially on politics and consumerism. I loved “Enriched Bread” (which was a take on Holy Communion), and her circus letter pieces (which I’ve only just realised they cleverly used to spell out Ditchling) – her style in general was pretty cool, even in the pieces where I was less keen on the content. Her life story was also really interesting – in addition to the whole nun thing, she was responsible for the largest and smallest pieces of commissioned art in the US; the largest being a water tower in Boston (which no longer exists, but they saved the paint chips when they took it down, which are now considered their own works of art), and the smallest the Love stamp she designed for USPS. I was glad her pieces were here, because her bright and cheerful style really offset the creepiness of Gill.  There were also a couple of short films she made playing in a small movie room, but I didn’t watch them in their entirety.
  
The other room of the museum contained more Catholic-themed pieces: some cartoons by a priest (the snake in particular cracked me up, biblical reference and all), a delightful photograph of nuns riding camels, and some religious figurines worked in gold. There was also a small display on how printing presses worked, which made me wish there was one you could actually try out. I’d love to learn how to use a printing press – they look so cool, and there’s something magical about seeing your words come to life on a page.
  
This was quite a small museum, effectively being only two exhibition rooms (three if you count the one with the swing); in fact, Marcus looked through their brochure before we left because he was sure we must have missed something, but nope, that was all there was (it looked like there should have been more from the outside as well, as the museum was split between two buildings, but one of them was just the shop and cafe). It was fine because we got in for free, but had I paid £6.50, I think I would have been rather annoyed at the size and the fact that the museum only took about half an hour to see. I also found the lack of information on Gill’s very chequered past troubling, though I can obviously see why they chose to omit it. They should really have had more information on the Sussex modernists in general, because I still haven’t figured out what their ethos was (as I said in the Sussex modernism post). It’d be a lovely place to have a picnic (if you like eating outside – personally I hate it, and when a seagull stole my long-awaited ice cream in Brighton right out of my hand as I was eating it, I felt justified in my hatred of al fresco dining), and it made a perfectly fine pit stop on the way to Brighton, but I feel that such a new museum really has no excuse for shying away from controversy, and the admission fee is also a bit much (I also didn’t like how they essentially ignored us when we were looking around the shop, but fawned all over the older ladies who came in after us, asking them to do a visitors’ survey and everything. What, our opinion didn’t matter?). 2.5/5.
  

Oxford: The Pitt Rivers Museum

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

  

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

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

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

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

Oxford: Museum of the History of Science

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

   

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

  

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

  

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

   

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

  

Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

   

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

  

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

 

 

 

 

Stockport, Greater Manchester: Hat Works

How could I not visit the “UK’s only museum dedicated to the hatting industry, hats, and headwear”?! So after leaving Manchester, we headed straight for Stockport to see Hat Works (passing a McVitie’s factory en route, though I sadly couldn’t find evidence of a factory shop. I was hoping to obtain a sack of defective caramel digestives that had been rejected due to having too much caramel or something). Apparently there is parking right around the corner from Hat Works, which we noticed belatedly after parking in a garage halfway across town. But no harm done, we needed the exercise anyway (including the hike up a giant set of steps, because Stockport is hilly) after eating grilled cheese for breakfast for the second day in a row.

  

I’m a bit confused as to what Hat Works’ official admission policy is, because the website states that admission is £5, but the woman at the desk didn’t charge us anything. They do offer guided tours, so perhaps the admission fee only applies to those? Anyway, I’d just assume you have to pay the fiver, and then you’ll be pleasantly surprised like we were if you don’t. We had to drive back to London before rush hour, so we did not have time for a 90 minute tour, and opted to just wander by ourselves instead. The museum is spread out over two levels (both located below the floor that you enter on), and is much bigger than I was expecting based on some of the reviews.

  

The exhibition level is where all the hats are, and it was a delightful array of headgear indeed (though seriously, why would a clown have a hat with a skeleton inside? Clowns are creeps). The lighting was pretty dim for conservation reasons, but as promised, our eyes did eventually adjust, so it was easier to see all the splendid hats, which even included some worn by celebrities (if you consider Fred Dibnah and Ainsley Harriott celebrities, that is (in fairness, they did have one of Judi Dench’s hats too, I’m just not a big Judi Dench fan.)). I quite liked the ones shaped like things, like cauliflowers and cakes, though I’m not sure how they’d look on.

  

Happily, I did get to see how I would look in a variety of other hats, because they had an amazing hat dress-up corner. I confess that a large factor in my deciding to visit the museum was my love for trying on hats, since I figured they’d have to have at least a couple out for that purpose. It was way more than a couple – there was a whole shelved wall full of hats, probably thirty different ones! I’m sure they were intended for children, but we were the only people visiting the museum, and frankly, some of the hats were on shelves that a child would have struggled to reach (even I struggled with the topmost ones), so I think they really wanted me to be able to take full advantage. Best hat corner ever!

  

I also really enjoyed the displays curated by various staff members at their partner museums, and I loved the one guest curator’s idea of having a “hats and cats” museum instead (the sample stuffed cat wearing a hat was pretty great, though I strongly suspect real cats would be not so enthused about hats). All the vintage hat ads were cool too, and may have inspired me to start wearing the cloche I acquired a few years back, but have never worn out of the house because I fear unruly youths will mock me and snatch it off my head.

  

The floor underneath the hatstravaganza contained old hat factory machinery (the building is housed in an old factory, though I wasn’t real clear on whether it was actually a hat factory. I think it may have just been a cotton mill). This is where the guided tour would have paid off, because tour groups are allowed access into a couple special areas that we weren’t, and got way more information about the machinery than what was provided on the signs (judging by the group that was going through while we were there), but to be honest, my interest in hat manufacturing is nowhere near as great as my interest in looking at and trying on unusual hats, so I was content with just reading the signage.

  

There was also a mock-up of an old hatter’s cottage, which was pretty depressing, and perhaps authentically cold, as well as some information about the history of hat makers (not enough info about them going mad from mercury poisoning, but there was a bit). Basically, like everyone else who was working class in Victorian Britain, they had grim lives, with the added benefit of potential insanity, and male hatters were incredibly resentful of female hatters because they drove wages down. By this point it was already cutting it close for us getting back home at a reasonable hour, so I didn’t spend as much time in here as I probably should have, but the hat exhibition floor was definitely my preferred floor anyway, and I had ample time to look at that.

  

The gift shop sells, as you might expect, a variety of hats for men and women, though I declined to purchase one on this occasion, since I already own that cloche that I’m not wearing. I did get a postcard of what was allegedly the Duke of Wellington’s hat from Waterloo (the big feathery thing) which is also on display inside the museum (see below). I was pleasantly surprised that the museum was so much larger and hattier than I was expecting, and even if I had to pay £5, I would have been quite content with what I got to see in return, because it really was an excellent hat museum (as well it might be, if it’s the only one in Britain). 4/5 for the Hat Works, and it’s not the only museum in Stockport – I might have to go back some day to tour the old air raid shelter (and investigate the biscuit factory further – I want those defective extra caramelly digestives that may or may not exist)!

  

Manchester: Manchester Museum: A Visit Interrupted

Truth be told, I wasn’t all that enthused about visiting the Manchester Museum. From the name, I initially assumed it was a local history museum, and was amenable enough, but then Marcus told me that actually, it was a natural history and ethnographic museum, and I became much less keen. Nothing against ethnography or natural history (my love of taxidermy is well known), but I could see that stuff anywhere, and Manchester had so many unique and interesting sounding museums that it seemed a shame to waste time on this one. But after leaving the Pankhurst Centre, we found ourselves with an hour to kill before we could check into our hotel (and put our car in the lot), so we needed to go somewhere with parking to kill time, which pretty much ruled out anywhere in the city centre. Since Manchester Museum is on the university campus, there was a parking garage right around the corner, and the museum was free, so that sold us.

  

The Manchester Museum was bigger than I expected, and our visit time was going to be limited no matter what, because we were due to meet friends later that afternoon, but it turns out that it was more limited than even I expected (as the title gives away), so this will by necessity be a partial review (but I still wanted to blog about it, because Marcus took lots of photos).  We opted to start with the permanent galleries rather than the temporary exhibitions, so headed upstairs to see the ethnographic collections. I loved their sign about the statue of Ganesha, because it explained that he is holding a bowl of his favourite sweets, which made me feel a real affinity with him.  In addition to religious artefacts from various world cultures, there was also a small section on weaponry, particularly archery equipment, in the back of the gallery.

  

And there was also an ancient Egypt section, which is pretty much de rigueur for this kind of museum. One thing I did like was that one of the sarcophagi was open over glass, so that you could see the mummy inside (the mummy had apparently been a victim of a Victorian unwrapping – the kind that was the inspiration for the performance I witnessed at the National Archives’ Halloween event).

  

But after muddling through all the uninspiring stuff, at last we got to natural history, and that’s where the museum started to shine. Because there was so damn much taxidermy, two whole floors of it, to be exact! And we all know that I love taxidermied animals way more than any vegetarian has a right to.

  

Though the animals, on a whole, seemed to be pretty well done (and nothing like the gems in the National Museum of Ireland), which, given my love for bad taxidermy, was admittedly something of a disappointment, I did of course manage to find a few derpy examples, which I present here for your enjoyment.

  

OK, the baby elephant was more adorable than derpy, but he was such a cutie that I had to include him (though I felt really bad that he was in there. I sincerely hope he died of natural causes). Other highlights included a couple of plaster casts from a man and dog who died in Pompeii, and the skull of “Old Billy,” an allegedly 62 year old horse. I mean, I don’t know exactly how long horses normally live, but I thought it was more in the 30 year range, so this seemed far-fetched, but it seems to be verified in various places, so maybe Old Billy was just an extremely ancient horse. Of course, he lived from 1760-1822, when it presumably would have been easier to run an old horse scam without anyone checking up on it, but he was just an old barge horse, so I’m not sure if anyone was actually exploiting his age for monetary gain or not.

  

The upper hall of taxidermy eventually led into the “Vivarium,” which holds the museum’s collections of living animals, primarily reptiles, amphibians, and insects. This area was pretty crowded with parents and children (it was a Sunday when we visited, and Manchester Museum seems like the go-to weekend place, probably because it’s free, and most kids like looking at animals), so it was hard to get a peek at most of the cases, but I did spot this excellently lazy lizard.

  

And sadly, that is where my experience of Manchester Museum comes to an end, because as I was about to pass from the Vivarium into the next gallery, a fire alarm started going off really, really loudly (as they do, I guess, but this really seemed close to a permanently damaging level of sound).   So we were all directed down the nearest staircase, where people got to the bottom and then just sort of milled around confusedly in front of the fire door, instead of, you know, going out it, so Marcus and I had to take the lead and push our way outside. In fairness to the people just standing about, the exit wasn’t particularly well marked, and there were more stairs leading into the basement from where we were, so it wasn’t completely obvious what we were supposed to do. Also, because we were in the first group down, there wasn’t a staff member by the door yet to direct people out.

  

After evacuating the building, we stood around the front for a while, but the alarms didn’t show any sign of letting up, and they really were hurting my ears, so we gave up and headed back to the car (it was nearly time to check into the hotel by then anyway). I’m pretty sure it was just a drill, because I didn’t hear anything more about it, so I assume the museum is still fully intact.  But as a result of the alarm, I missed the rest of the permanent galleries, and the temporary exhibitions, one featuring art by Reena Saini Kallat, and also one on memories of Partition, about the creation of India and Pakistan. So I guess I can’t fairly score this one, because I didn’t see the whole museum. I will say that the natural history section was enjoyable, and it’s certainly much bigger than other museums of this type, but it’s not really anything you couldn’t see in any other major city (except maybe Old Billy), there’s just more of it. Good for killing time, but not worth a special trip if your time in Manchester is limited, at least as far as the permanent collections go, though I can’t comment on the temporary stuff, since I didn’t see it.