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 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!

Cambridge: The Polar Museum

Ever since learning of its existence through Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling, I have wanted to visit the Polar Museum, aka The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.  My love for doomed polar expeditions has been well-documented on this blog, and the thought of seeing artefacts that actually came from Scott’s failed Terra Nova Expedition was irresistible.  And there were lots of other museums in Cambridge that looked great too, but somehow I just never got around to going.  However, I just started a new job (I’ve been unemployed for over five years; basically the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, and then some. So this job is a really big deal for me, but it’s also totally not the type of thing I thought I would ever be doing, and I’m genuinely not sure how long I’ll be doing it for, because it is hard physical work!), so on my final week of freedom, I wanted to venture out of London, and because it was too late (and expensive!) to book anywhere abroad, I settled for a day trip to Cambridge.


Getting up there was actually a cinch…it took about as long (45 minutes) to get from our flat to King’s Cross (10 miles) as it does to get from King’s Cross to Cambridge (55 miles) on the direct train (getting around London is always the hardest part). Marcus and I had about six and a half hours in Cambridge before the museums shut, and a long list of museums to potentially visit, so I thought it would be best to start with the Polar Museum, both because it was closest to the station, and the museum I most wanted to see (we ended up making it to five museums in the end, as you’ll eventually see, which I think is really pretty good going. My feet were killing me by the end of the day, but it was worth it).


Happily, the Polar Museum is free, as are all the museums that are part of Cambridge University (there are a couple of museums in the city of Cambridge that do charge admission), so this was shaping up to be a very budget-friendly trip.  We were greeted by a couple of volunteers at the admissions desk, who instructed us to begin in the entrance hall (back out the doors we came in) and work our way clockwise around the museum. So we dutifully trooped back outside to admire the beautiful entrance hall ceiling that I had missed on the way in.  It had maps of the North and South Poles on it, with ships from all the major polar voyages painted in on them, which I loved, and strained my neck trying to read all the labels (you can see one of the maps in the first set of pictures). The museum proper began with a section on the native peoples of the Arctic (since obviously there is no native human population in the Antarctic), and displayed some of their traditional crafts (I want some traditional Greenlandic boots, or at least I would if they weren’t probably made from baby seals. Maybe they could use faux fur for mine?).


At the time of our visit, the museum was hosting a small exhibition of Dick Laws’ art (it looks like the exhibition ran slightly over, because the website says it was on until 25 March, and we were there on the 26th). Dick Laws was a marine mammal scientist who travelled to the Antarctic to study seals and whales, and he was also a keen artist who produced some very cool (literally) little paintings.


But it was the main room, containing artefacts from almost all the major polar expeditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I was most keen to see, and man, this did not disappoint.  This room was a veritable treasure trove for polar history nerds like myself.


It touched on a few of the earlier expeditions, but it really had loads of stuff relating to John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage. I mean, a surprising amount, given that the Erebus and Terror just mysteriously vanished, along with all their crew. Most of it was admittedly from the search parties that went out looking for Franklin, but Inuit recovered items from one of Franklin’s ships before it sank (mostly made of metal, like the set of spoons bearing Franklin’s crest), and some of those items eventually made their way back into English hands. I thought the coolest thing was one of the actual letters left in a cache by Franklin’s men before the ships had been lost, explaining how they had spent their first winter in the Arctic (a letter was also left by Franklin’s men after Franklin died (of natural causes) and the ships had been abandoned, but the museum only had the facsimile of that, the real one apparently residing at the National Maritime Museum (but I’ve never actually seen it there. Hopefully it will make an appearance in the special Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum this summer, which is also meant to have artefacts recovered from the wreck of the Erebus! I can’t wait!)).


And then there was Scott, the museum’s eponym (well, the research centre’s eponym anyway. Does anyone else get namesake and eponym confused? I had to look it up for this post to make sure I was using it correctly). I thought the Franklin collection was impressive, but this was even better, probably because although Scott and the four men chosen to head for the South Pole with him all died, their other teammates (shipmates?) survived, and the tent Scott et al died in was discovered soon afterwards (they were only 11 miles from their nearest depot, which was full of supplies), so pretty much everything could be recovered.  One of the (many!) great tragedies of Terra Nova is of course that Scott was just pipped to the Pole by Roald Amundson, as Scott discovered upon reaching the Pole himself, and he was then stranded in a tent on the return trip by a bad storm and frostbitten feet. So he died knowing that he failed to accomplish his goal of being the first man at the South Pole.


But out of tragedy comes a hell of an interesting story, and some amazing artefacts.  The most poignant things by far were the actual letters and diary entries written by Scott and the men who accompanied him on the doomed dash for the Pole when they realised they were going to die. Lawrence Oates, who I wrote about in my very first post, developed bad frostbite early on, and felt he was holding the others back, so essentially sacrificed himself by wandering outside during a storm, where he froze to death (he died on his 32nd birthday, if you needed it to be even sadder). The museum had a letter from Edward Wilson (one of the other men who would die) describing Oates’s heroic death to his family. There was also a letter from Scott to his own family, bidding them all farewell, which was terribly sad.


Speaking of Oates, the museum had his actual sleeping bag, which was slit so he could get his damaged frostbitten feet in and out of it, a pair of Scott’s polar goggles, and actual food from the expedition, including a massive tin of Colman’s mustard powder, and a product made by Bovril specifically for the voyage that contained pemmican on one side, and cocoa on the other (the staples of the explorers’ diets were basically ship’s biscuit, pemmican, and cocoa, and they usually combined the pemmican and biscuit with water to make a stew called hoosh. It’s a shame that the European-made pemmican, unlike the native stuff, was simply dried meat and fat, with none of the traditional dried berries that might have at least helped to stave off scurvy (one of the missions to find Scott was aborted because they were trying to save another man who had developed scurvy. Vitamin C was actually discovered in 1912, just slightly too late to have done Scott’s expedition any good)).  I think it’s fascinating how many special products were produced especially for various polar expeditions (and I think they should bring back a special “polar edition” Colman’s mustard powder tin. I’d buy the hell out of that (another of my weird food quirks is that I hate actual pre-mixed mustard, but I love Colman’s mustard powder. I dump an inappropriately large amount into my rarebit sauce)).


They also had a small case of stuff from Shackleton, but I’ve been kind of down on him since I learned he ordered Mrs. Chippy shot (I know explorers killing their animals to survive is par for the course (Scott even took ponies with him with the intention of killing them for meat once they’d reached a certain point, because ponies are meatier than dogs), but they weren’t at breaking point yet, and they didn’t even eat the poor cat. They just shot him. I don’t know, if you read Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition you’ll probably share my outrage), and anyway, Scott was really the main 20th century explorer they focused on in the museum. All they had from Mawson’s expedition was his theodolite (but I think most of the Mawson stuff is in Adelaide, which makes sense, since he was Australian. I wonder if he saved the soles of his feet after they peeled off and he had to stick them back in his boots to be able to go on walking. Now that’s a gross artefact I would LOVE to see!)


The museum concluded with a small display about modern scientists in Antarctica, but it was kind of an afterthought, because clearly everyone is coming to see the actual artefacts.  And rightly so, they are awesome!  I was incredibly pleased with this museum, and when I left, I talked about how it was a 4.5/5 museum (I think it was a bit too small to be 5/5, but they did a great job with the space they had, I’m just always hungry for more!), and that’s what I’m sticking with; even after seeing the other Cambridge museums (some of which were excellent) it was still my favourite, simply because I’d read so much about the things here, and it was amazing to be able to see them in person. And they had an adorable husky statue outside, which didn’t hurt either.  This museum is a must-see for any polar exploration fan!




Beaulieu, Hampshire: National Motor Museum, Beaulieu Abbey, Etc.

dsc08294I chose to open this post with the above picture because I think my ambivalent expression in it perfectly encapsulates my initial feelings about Beaulieu (I don’t really want to get into politics on here, but I feel like I can’t let an event this horrifying pass without comment, so I have to say that if I had to pick a facial expression to sum up my feelings on the results of the US election, it would be more like this, but maybe with even more grump. Feeling very angry today).  I’m not interested in actual cars, or in paying an absolute buttload of money to see said cars, but I sure do like sitting in fake cars whilst pretending to drive them (it has to be pretend since I never learned how to drive a real car), and dressing up in old-timey outfits, and actual Disney World style pod rides!  All of which are part of the Beaulieu experience.

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“Alright Jessica, you don’t like cars, so what are you doing paying £19 [and that’s the cheaper advance online rate; it’s £24 at the door if you don’t book ahead] to see the National Motor Museum?” you may ask, and with good reason.  Well, my parents visited me back in October and unfortunately, my father is the sort of person who doesn’t really like doing things, as far as I can tell.  But he does like cars, so in a vain attempt to do something (anything!) with him that he might enjoy, we decided to take him to Beaulieu, since it was the biggest car-related site we could think of (plus they have other attractions too!).  I’m still not sure if he actually enjoyed himself, but the rest of us tried to make the best of the day, given that we’d driven a good couple of hours to get there.

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So, we began with the main attraction: the National Motor Museum.  Well, it certainly has a lot of cars in it!  Fortunately, the collection included quite a few early automobiles, which I could at least appreciate on a historical level, including two cars used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (I actually find the movie kind of a disappointment, given that some of my favourite people (Roald Dahl and Dick Van Dyke) were involved with it, so it really should be better than it is, but nonetheless…); Truly Scrumptious’s car, and old Chitty himself (herself?  Was Chitty assigned a gender?).

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I also appreciated the street of yesteryear, half-assed though it was (you couldn’t actually go in any of the shops, being that the focus was all on the cars), and the many interactive displays (the talking crash test dummy scared me a little); even though learning more about how cars worked wasn’t really all that interesting to me, pressing buttons and turning dials is still kinda fun.  But the best part of the Motor Museum, by far, was yet to come.

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Yes, it was that aforementioned pod ride, simply called “Wheels.”  It came as a complete surprise to me, to the extent that I wandered into a dark hallway marked “this way to Wheels,” just thinking it was some kind of exhibit, and was shocked when a man approached and directed me into a moving pod (I think Marcus and I were the only ones on the ride; no queues, brilliant!).  Oh man, this ride was great too, rather reminiscent of the one at Jorvik Viking Centre (though minus the pooping Viking, more’s the pity), with really cheesy tableaux that clearly hadn’t been updated in decades (a Linley Sambourne cartoon provided the backdrop for one of the scenes, remember him?).

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In fact, I liked it so much that I would have ridden it again had it not been for the fact that it spun around just slightly too much, and left me feeling a bit ill for an hour or so afterwards (nothing severe though, and I am extremely prone to motion sickness, so most people would probably be fine), so I wandered around and looked at some of the excellent mannequins in the museum instead.

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After a quick break for lunch (after reading some of the Trip Advisor reviews of the cafe the night before, I decided to bring a peanut butter sandwich from home, which turned out to be wise, because the food in the cafe did indeed look and smell disgusting (normally when we’re out somewhere for the day, we just grab a baguette and hummus from the nearest supermarket if none of the local eateries look appealing, but Beaulieu is fairly isolated (in the New Forest, hello wild ponies!), so you’re kind of at the mercy of their catering facilities once you get inside)), we headed to “On Screen Cars,” a rather small tent shared with a children’s play area that was meant to hold famous cars used in TV and movies.  There were only about eight cars in there, and most of them were from old British sitcoms that I didn’t watch or care about, but I did enjoy seeing Mr. Bean’s car and the car that the Anti-Pesto car in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was modeled on, because I adore Wallace and Gromit (not that ass-penguin from The Wrong Trousers though.  He can rot in that zoo).

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Beaulieu is also home to the “World of Top Gear.” I’m not a Top Gear fan, so this meant very little to me, but I’m sure some people would enjoy it.  The object captions certainly tried very hard to be funny in that xenophobic Top Gear way, so there’s that.

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But, as Beaulieu’s tagline goes, it is “much more than a motor museum,” so we hopped aboard the monorail to discover the rest of it (the monorail isn’t strictly necessary, as the abbey and stuff are close enough to easily walk to, but after spending all day going, “monorail, monorail” as a prelude to breaking into the monorail song from The Simpsons, there was no way I wasn’t riding the damn monorail), starting with a garden filled with pretty kick-ass topiaries (the ones shown above are part of the tea party from Alice in Wonderland.  Ignore my weird face; I was squinting because of the sun and I don’t have another picture that shows the topiaries without me).

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One of the outbuildings to the manor house contained the “Secret Army Exhibition.”  Like many large estates during WWII, Beaulieu was partially taken over by the military, and was converted into a secret training school for Special Operations Executives.  So there were a lot of cool Bond-esque props on display that were once given to spies, and some stuff about coding, including a tribute to a pretty awesome-sounding woman named Noor Inayat Khan, who was descended from Indian nobility.  Despite her pacifist inclinations, she wanted to help the war effort, so she joined the WAAFs, trained as a wireless operator, and eventually became the first female radio operator dropped behind enemy lines.  Sadly, she was captured by the Gestapo after being betrayed by a fellow agent, and taken to Dachau and executed after undergoing months of  solitary confinement whilst chained.  There is apparently a heritage trail of sites related to her life that people can follow; maps of the trail were provided in the exhibition.

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And now, on a slightly cheerier note, on to the country house, known as “Palace House,” which was a fine example of its type.  This is what made me feel slightly better about paying £19, because let’s face it, a National Trust property would have charged at least 11 or 12 quid for the house and gardens alone.

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The house was fairly sizeable, even though I’m sure we weren’t allowed to see the whole thing, and the paintings and objects all had captions apparently fondly written by the 3rd Baron of Montagu, I guess to show us how intimately his family was connected to the house (he talked about people who died a few centuries ago as if he knew them) and what a neat guy he was (it actually did sort of work, because I felt a bit sad when I discovered that he died in 2015, and his son is the current Baron.  I especially love the caption on that little velvet suit, which the 3rd Baron wore to George VI’s coronation.  He mentions that the velvet bag contained sandwiches to sustain him through the long ceremony!).  I guess I should have mentioned this earlier, but Edward, the 3rd Baron, is the whole reason that all the cars are here today: his father, John, was a keen early adopter of the motorcar (he used to take Edward VII for drives), so Edward (Montagu, just to clarify) started the museum in his father’s memory.

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The house is decorated roughly as it would have been in the Victorian era, and although I was a bit worried about interacting with the costumed “servants” who were meant to tell us about life belowstairs, it turned out they didn’t even acknowledge our presence (I didn’t want a whole awkward conversation with someone in character, but a simple hello or even a nod would have been nice).  It was a lovely home, with some taxidermy and secret stairs, as you’d want from an old manor house.

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There was also some very good bird wallpaper, a detailed exhibit about two feisty sounding ladies (stepmother and stepdaughter) who lived in the house for practically the whole of the 20th century (they had long lives), a random collection of Soviet art, and some really excellent modern family portraits that cracked me right up.  I wish I could afford to have my portrait painted in a similar fashion.

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Finally, there’s Beaulieu Abbey, which was a thriving monastic community until Henry VIII came along and broke with Catholicism, and much of the old abbey was destroyed.  But some of it is still there, along with some examples of cool sarcophagi that were made to hold people’s hearts. Apparently, wealthy medieval people would often have their hearts and bones removed from their bodies after they died, and have their flesh buried in one place, bones in another, and their hearts in some place that was especially meaningful to them. It was done mainly so more people would pray over them (because the congregation of each church they were buried in would then have an obligation to do so), but symbolically speaking, I think it’s kind of a nice idea to have your heart put someplace special, even though I feel sorry for the person who has to remove it.  The double coffin was so husbands and wives could put their hearts together (aww, in a grisly way).

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The upstairs hall had some modern tapestries showing medieval life at the abbey (the tapestries were made in the 1990s) that contained lots of adorable farm animals, so I was a fan.  Wandering the grounds of the Abbey, I came across the 3rd Baron’s grave (which is how I learned he was dead; a bit of a shock after his chatty tone in all those captions in the house).  More importantly though, I also came across the ice cream cottage, wherein a delightful man gave me an enormous scoop of mint chocolate ripple ice cream for only £2 (the main cafeteria may have been gross, but I have no complaints about the ice cream cottage, or the ice cream man’s scooping technique, which was excellent.  As someone who worked at an ice cream shop for five years, I am definitely qualified to judge this).

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I fear I’ve already run on for too long, and only the very dedicated will have made it this far, so time to sum up!  Though I am indeed, very much not a car person, I can’t argue with an actual ride inside a museum (also the monorail passes right through the museum, so it’s really like it has two rides!), and the rest of the estate was pretty damn entertaining as well.  Was it worth £19?  Actually, maybe it was (though initially ambivalent, I guess I came around in the end!).  We did spend practically the whole day there, and I had a surprising amount of fun.  I mean, you can’t go wrong with dressing up and posing in an old-fashioned car. 4/5.



Brighton, East Sussex: Brighton Museum

DSC01928The Royal Pavilion shares the Pavilion Gardens with the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, so it made sense to pop over there directly after visiting the Royal Pavilion, especially as it is another National Art Fund friendly property, so we got free entry (£5.20 otherwise, but it is free for Brighton and Hove residents with proof of address).  Although it may appear that the Brighton Museum was originally part of the Royal Pavilion (because of the similarity in architectural styles), it was actually purpose-built in the 1870s, presumably to match the Eastern-influenced appearance of the Pavilion.  I’ve been to the museum a few times over the years, so this was a slightly speedy visit where I basically just passed through to snap some photos (or point to things so my boyfriend takes a photo of them, as is usually the way) and make sure things were more or less as I remembered them.

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Like many local museums, the Brighton Museum is an eclectic mix of galleries, but it’s larger than your typical local museum, and pulls off the strange mix more skillfully than others, perhaps because it’s in keeping with the character of Brighton itself.  The museum opens with a hall of interior design, which features, among other things, a baseball mitt couch inspired by Joe DiMaggio, one of the famous (THE famous? Is there more than one?) Mae West Lips sofas, by Salvador Dali, and one of Grayson Perry’s vases.

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Carrying on from the design gallery, you’ll come upon the Ancient Egyptian nook (this is the kind of eclecticism I was talking about).  It’s got your usual Egyptian stuff: some canopic jars, a few sarcophagi, etc, and also a mildly entertaining computer game (aimed at children) where you get to choose the tools needed to embalm a body, and then stuff the organs in their appropriate jars (harder than it should have been).

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Because it is the Brighton Museum, there are of course a couple galleries devoted to local history, detailing how Brighton became a fashionable seaside resort town, info about life in Brighton during the war years, and also how Brighton came to be one of the most LGBT friendly places in the UK.  There were some nice seasidey touches in here, like one of those boards you stick your head through so it looks like you have the body of an Edwardian bather, and a couple penny arcade machines, though it was unclear whether you could actually use them or not (my guess is no, since they probably took old school pennies, but they were just kind of sitting out, practically begging you to try them).

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I am kind of a nerd about old ceramics, so the “Willett’s Popular Pottery” gallery is definitely my favourite.  There are so many wonderful things in here, but the best had to be the “Red Barn Murder” figurines (I’ve tried to get my hands on a set before, but these are super rare and mega expensive.  This is the first set I’ve seen in person), featuring Maria Marten and her murderer William Corder, both as a smiling, newlywed couple, and then in front of the infamous barn, with William luring the innocent Maria inside to her horrible demise.  With a cow complacently chewing cud off to one side, which really makes it perfect.  This was just one small part of the crime-related pottery section (told you it’s an excellent gallery!), which also had figurines of Dick Turpin and one of his less-famous highwayman friends, among others.

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I want to show you all the things, but I realise that others probably don’t share my level of interest in historical ceramic figurines.  But there was lots of great stuff here; not only slightly misshapen animals, but those Georgian mugs with cartoons printed right on them, and some of those old-school royalty mugs (before official photographs or portraits were used, and somebody just crappily hand-painted a generic looking bewigged man on them).

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Although this was not my first visit to the museum, I think I’d somehow missed going upstairs in the past, because I did not remember these galleries at all (and I definitely would have if I’ve seen them).  The first was the Performance Gallery, which contained puppets and costumes from all over the world.  My two favourites are pictured above.  Poor George IV.  The guy just can’t catch a break.

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Then there was the Ocean Blues Gallery, which I have to mention just so I can show you pictures of that sad shark and albatross chick (the chick was bigger than the adults they had on display, not sure how that works, especially when you look at the size of the egg it came out of.  Maybe there’s just a lot of downy fluff involved?).  I want to take that shark home and give him a hug, the poor thing.  This gallery mainly discussed pollution and its impact on the oceans, so it’s probably appropriate that the shark looked so lonely and upset.

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The fashion gallery contained one of Fatboy Slim’s shirts, which my boyfriend was kind of excited about for some reason (I could never get into Fatboy Slim, maybe it’s one of those inexplicable British things?  I’m not even that sure who he actually is, since his videos seemed to only have other people in them (I’m thinking of that “Praise You” song that was big in the late ’90s, which come to think of it, is the only Fatboy Slim song I know of)).  It also had a cool naval coat, and some adorable albeit probably uncomfortable bathing costumes, but the strangest part was the collection of clothing associated with ’80s movements, like punk, skinhead, and goth outfits (fair enough), but also a queer-fetish-techno-punk outfit from 1998, which I didn’t even realise was a subgenre.  Where I come from, we just called them ravers.

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Unfortunately, that amazing doorway no longer leads into a zoology gallery, but rather, the art galleries.  Since it’s mainly modern art in here, I would have preferred zoology (especially because that probably means taxidermy), but what can you do.  One of the canvases in here was literally just beige, and some guy was admiring it like it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  I will never understand that kind of modern art.

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Back downstairs, I found another gallery I’d missed previously hiding in the corner, which was about different cultures from around the world, containing some cool objects from each of them (I liked all the Inuit stuff, though I don’t have a picture; I guess I didn’t point to it vigorously enough), and for some inexplicable reason, a foosball table (some family was already using it, but I didn’t mind so much because I am extremely terrible at foosball.  Give me an air hockey table or Skeeball over it any day).

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I think the Brighton Museum is one of those rare places that I actually wouldn’t have minded paying for (though I’m not complaining that I got in free!).  I remember really liking it the first time I went (many years ago, before I even moved to the UK; it was the summer when I was backpacking through Europe and I spent a day in Brighton because I decided I hated London and I needed to get away. It’s funny how life turns out sometimes), and I still like it.  It’s not enormous or anything, but it’s big enough to kill a couple hours in, and varied enough that there’s something for everyone, especially if you like ceramic cats (don’t miss the giant one in the cafe!).  3.5/5.


Brighton, East Sussex: The Royal Pavilion

DSC01923_stitchThe Royal Pavilion is an amazing, confused conglomeration of excess, built for the notoriously dissipated Prince Regent (who became George IV) in the 1810s.  It’s probably the most recognisable building in Brighton, with its distinctive Indian-inspired exterior, and its even crazier Chinese-influenced interior.  And despite having visited Brighton a fair number of times over the years, the first time I ventured inside this behemoth was just a few short weeks ago.

For you see, admission to the Royal Pavilion is normally a princely £12.30, but it is a National Art Fund partner, so members get free access (even though they don’t advertise it anywhere in the building or online, which gave me a bit of a scare, but they honour it in person with no trouble), so this is the first time myself and my wallet were inclined to venture within.  Also, I was a bit worried it would be excessively touristy, but even on a Sunday, it wasn’t too terribly crowded.  I mean, we walked right in, and had no trouble strolling around the place relatively unimpeded (though it was unseasonably cold on the day of our visit, meaning most people wouldn’t choose to visit a seaside town, so your mileage may vary in nicer weather).

Now, although the Royal Pavilion has one of the most incredible interiors I’ve ever seen, and I’m anxious to share it with you all, they do not allow photography inside.  I get that they’ve done a lot of restoration work over the years, but I still feel like they could let you snap a few shots in the most impressive downstairs rooms without doing any damage, but eurgh, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s to encourage you to tell your friends to come see it for themselves, since you’ll have no pictures to show off (actually, after poking about on their website, apparently it’s the Queen’s fault.  I knew I was opposed to the monarchy for a reason).  An amble around the internet didn’t reveal any good photographs available for free use (just some drawings and copies of old postcards), so please click this link to the Royal Pavilion’s website where you can click room by room to check them all out, making sure to focus on the Music Room and Banqueting Room, which I will talk about below, because they are the best.

They offered us an audio guide when we entered, but I’m so used to declining things that I just said no, without even asking if it cost extra.  Judging by the number of people who had audio guides (i.e. everyone except us), it might not, but you still all know what my position on audio guides usually is.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a tonne to read on the ground floor of the house, generally just a small sign per room, so I probably missed out on learning about the interior.  Fortunately, this was remedied to some extent with the help of the video room, wherein I learned that the Pavilion was built by Henry Holland on something of a budget, as George was still just a prince at the time, and his daddy had his finger on the purse strings.  However, once George III descended into madness for the final time, and Georgie Jr was made Prince Regent, he decided to expand and embellish with the help of John Nash, and went for this totally crazy British-Empire-meets-the-Orient design, inspired by his love of the Far East.  Later (skipping over William IV, who wasn’t around for long anyway), the staid Victoria rejected the palace as too louche for family living, and had everything stripped out of it and mostly transferred to Buckingham Palace, while she was busy lording it up at Osborne House.  When Brighton later decided to open the palace to the public, Victoria (to her credit) returned most of the furnishings, and sort-of-shoddy reconstructions were done to make up the rest of the interiors (they had some examples in there, they were pretty craptastic).  During WWI, the Pavilion went on to serve as a hospital for Indian soldiers and later, soldiers missing limbs, and then was finally properly restored after the war years, save for some minor setbacks in the 1970s and ’80s when there was an arson attack, and then one of the minarets collapsed, which destroyed the Music Room, but it is now back in all its glory.

And the Music Room was probably the best damn room in the whole place, save for maybe the Banqueting Room (actually, I did prefer the Music Room, because snakes).  Oh man, it was incredible.  Snakes and dragons all over the damn place (not real ones, obviously), crawling up the wallpaper, serving as curtain rods, and just generally awesomely slithering around.  The Banqueting Room was pretty baller too though, especially the chandelier, which weighs a tonne (literally), and is suspended from a large winged dragon.  Also of note was the Great Kitchen, which had fake palm tree columns, and a menu from one of the Careme catered banquets George hosted (also available on their website, but it’s too small to read on there), featuring an epic 68 dishes, plus 8 edible confectionery centrepieces (all the meaty stuff sounded pretty foul (sometimes fowl), but I would definitely tuck into a “great nougat, in the French style.”  Bring one to me now).

Even the Long Gallery, which we got to pass through several times on the way upstairs and downstairs, and back through George’s personal apartments (the whole thing was quite maze-like, and we only went the right way with the help of the ropes stretched all over the place), was neat.  It was full of creepily lifelike Chinese figurines and (guess what?) more dragons.

I realise it’s probably not possible with the way the place is set up, but they should probably make you see the downstairs rooms last, because I felt a little bit like Homer when he was given a tour of Mr. Burns’s house that ended in the basement (Homer: “Gee, it’s not as nice as the other rooms.”  Mr. Burns: “Yes, I really should stop ending the tour with it.”).  The upstairs rooms fairly paled in comparison to the splendours downstairs, but I did enjoy the museum-y rooms where I learned more about the restoration of the palace, and its time as a war hospital, and there was also a room full of caricatures of George IV, which were brilliant.  Victoria’s boringly restrained apartments were up here too, and according to their website, there was also a special bed with a tipping mechanism made for George when he was at his morbidly obese/gouty stage so he could get up more easily, but I somehow missed that detail when we were there (actually, that bed was downstairs, because if George could barely get out of bed, he certainly couldn’t climb stairs, but I still don’t remember seeing it).  Guess I paid the price for not taking the audio guide.

The palace also featured an enormous gift shop (not really anything in it I wanted to buy, but it was for sure big), and not one, but TWO cafes (probably technically a cafe and a tea room), but I didn’t see any millionaire’s shortbread (Brighton’s got too many good bakeries for me to want to eat in a museum cafe anyway), plus my stomach was already all set for some ice cream from Scoop and Crumb (it was a bit icier than usual, probably because it was still the off-season, but it didn’t stop me from eating three large scoops and promptly getting a stomachache). I don’t know if I’d still be as keen if I’d paid £12.30 for the Royal Pavilion (maybe if I’d had the audio guide.  If I’d paid, I’d definitely have taken the audio guide), since we walked through in under an hour, but for free, this was a fabulous outing.  I think this probably had my favourite interior out of any palace I’ve visited (which probably means I’m as gaudy and tasteless as George IV, but so be it), at least where the main downstairs rooms were concerned, and it was definitely worth seeing, at long last.  Still salty about my inability to photograph it (I should say Marcus’s inability to photograph it, because I never voluntarily take pictures) though.  4/5.

Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire: River and Rowing Museum

IMG_20160410_131126794_HDRAt last, a museum with riparian entertainments, as Hyacinth Bucket (that’s pronounced Bouquet!) would say.  Actually, though I like rivers just fine to look at, I’m not really a fan of any of the “riparian entertainments” like rowing, canoeing (ugh, especially not canoeing), kayaking, etc.  Which is not to say that I have anything against boats; I think I might enjoy boating if I wasn’t expected to power it myself, but I don’t give a hoot about rowing, especially in the context of the Oxbridge races and the Henley Regatta, which seem like one of those odd, unnecessarily elitist British traditions I’ll never fully understand. But the rowing stuff was only one gallery of the museum, so it still seemed worth a visit.

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Especially because it was another one of those partners with the National Art Fund, so woohoo, free entry for us!  Otherwise it’s £11, and I’m sure you can guess what I’ll say about that. Yep, it’s kind of steep, though maybe not quite as bad as I was expecting taking into consideration how large the museum ended up being (but still, I think 6 or 7 quid would be more fair).  They had a temporary Hockney exhibition on when we were there, and I really don’t have strong feelings about Hockney one way or the other.  I mean, he looks just like Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys (I HATE that show, but my boyfriend loves it and has made me watch it), and he draws a lot of penises (penii?) which I really don’t have a problem with, so I liked the exhibition well enough, or I would have if there wasn’t this security guard giving me the evil eye from the corner the whole time (two mean security guards in two weeks, what did I do to deserve this?).  It was really uncomfortable for me to walk around with him glaring daggers at me for no apparent reason (I did loudly make fun of Tracey Emin, maybe he was a fan?), but once I got to the other side of the room where I couldn’t see him anymore, it was fine.

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Once we got to the permanent galleries upstairs, we were directed by a sign on the door to start with the rowing gallery, so we did.  Even though, as I said, rowing holds no interest for me, this actually ended up being more interesting than the river gallery on account of the not-particularly-child-friendly interactive things.  This of course didn’t stop children from playing on them, even though there were signs specifically telling parents to supervise their children, because when someone with short legs tries to use a rowing machine, guess what happens?  They fall off and get hurt, which is exactly what happened to some little girl whose parents let her run amuck (I know this well, because I used to play around on my mother’s rowing machine when I was a kid even though she told me not to, and I usually ended up hurting myself somehow).  But, now that my legs are of an adult-length (or as close as they’re gonna get, I do kind of have stumpy legs), I enjoyed using the rowing machines, which told you what capacity you were working at (compared to a professional rower, I guess).  And the old Greek ship replica, and the machine where you had to try to row in sync with the computer, which I was really bad at, while a woman’s voice loudly urged us to stroke faster and harder in an embarrassing way.

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While I was interested in the parts about the history of other boats, like whale boats, and about how flagrantly the Victorians cheated at boat races, I skimmed over a lot of the stuff about the Regatta and other “rowing traditions.”  They did have Steve Redgrave’s boat though, and a bunch of other Olympic artefacts, as well as what I think was the first boat to win the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, if that appeals to you.  There was also a section about some endurance race tackled by a bunch of wounded soldiers which seemed kind of cool.

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There was another temporary gallery upstairs, this one hidden between the river and rowing galleries (I think the only way you could access it was by first going in the rowing gallery), but it just appeared to be pictures of “hair art,” as in, really bizarre hairstyles, so I didn’t spend a lot of time in here.  I instead headed for the river section, which was apparently more child-friendly than the rowing bit, at least judging by the children running back and forth between the length of the gallery, completely ignoring the colouring section and other interactive parts that were directed at them (I know I’m old and grumpy, and I don’t care).

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This was, I suppose, more about the ecology of the river than its history, though there was some of that as well.  The whole first section was devoted to child-orientated displays with different animals that live around rivers, followed by sections about flooding and water conservation.  There was a case about the history of locks and lock keepers that caught my attention.  I quite like the idea of being a lock keeper, just sitting in your cottage somewhere and only emerging to work when a boat arrives, but I hate being outside, so I’d probably loathe it, in reality.

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After discovering Father Thames, I really only had eyes for him.  They had a whole display of river-themed prints, and I liked most of them, but Father Thames is the only one I feel I need to own.  They didn’t have any in the museum gift shop though, and it was a numbered print, so it was probably limited edition, and therefore, expensive.

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The river gallery turned into a “bridge gallery” that actually went over the river (points for incorporating the Thames into the museum design), and mainly contained a big mural that I guess was supposed to depict the river, but was mostly just blobs of colour unless you stood really far back (I can see the boats now in the photo of it, but they were hard to make out in person, especially with the sun reflecting off of it).  This led into the Henley-on-Thames history gallery.  It didn’t get off to a great start, as the first few cases were cram-jammed full of local history artefacts with really small labels, so it was hard to appreciate the objects individually (though I did notice that the sausage box was on loan from another museum, and it amused me that an old sausage box would be in such high demand).

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Farther on the gallery opened up more though, so I could get a better look at things.  There was a whole case devoted to Mary Blandy, who I’d definitely heard of before, though I can’t quite remember where (I read way too many books about murderers).  She was a local woman who slowly poisoned her father with arsenic, allegedly at the instigation of her bigamous husband, and was ultimately hanged for it.  Speaking of hangings, they also had a part of a tree that Prince Rupert hanged a Parliamentarian from during the English Civil War.  Oh, and this cool time capsule buried in the 18th century by this guy who said he hoped that if “curious posterity should examine this old rubbish, it may find something to give pleasure, and perhaps profit since some arts are dying out,” which cracked me up.  The capsule was full of old pottery and glass shards.

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Kenneth Grahame also lived in the area at one point, and so there was a whole Wind in the Willows gallery. I must confess that at the time I visited this museum, I had never read nor watched Wind in the Willows, so I had no idea what was going on in here.  In fact, I kept referring to Toad as a frog, because that’s what he looked like, being green and all (he looks more like a toad in the original black and white illustrations).  But I am happy to report that I have since remedied the situation, immediately checking Wind in the Willows out from the library when it opened the next day, and it really is a delightful little book, though I’m still not sure how big the animals are supposed to be in proportion to the people for Toad to be able to pass as a washerwoman and to drive cars and such, but to also be able to hang out in burrows.  It was confusing.  Also, toads don’t have hair, Kenneth Grahame, and I’m not sure I would refer to their hands as “paws” either, but still, delightful.  “Poop-poop!”

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That said, even though I didn’t know what was going on when I walked through this gallery, I still said it was “magical,” which turns out to be exactly how the museum describes it on their website, so I guess it had the desired effect on me.  It’s basically just a dark cave-like room that you walk through and look at scenes (life-size?  Well, maybe, if I could figure out how big the animals are actually meant to be) from the book (or maybe the TV show, it seemed like there was a bigger emphasis on the weasels in here than there was in the book), but it helped that we were the only ones in there, and that there were buttons to press that made some of the tableaux move.

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So I have to give them credit where credit’s due, and say that despite the high admission price, and the out-of-control children (not the museum’s fault), it really was a fun museum, and I definitely enjoyed myself far more than I was expecting, given the emphasis on rowing and all.  3.5/5.

Also in the area (well, about a twenty minute drive away) is this thing called the Maharajah’s Well, in the village of Stoke Row, which was built by a 19th century maharajah who was friends with the Lieutenant Governor of India’s North West Provinces.  The Governor (who happened to come from Stoke Row) told the maharajah that his village often suffered from droughts, so the maharajah chose to endow them with a well so the poor people of the village could have free water.  So it is very India-in-the-age-of-Empire looking, with a gold elephant on top, and is pretty cool.  You basically just rock up, park across the street, and take a few pictures, no big deal, but it was neat to see so I’m glad we made the slight extra effort while we were in the area.  Oh, and this Steve Redgrave (and rowing partner, whatever he was called) statue back at the museum kind of creeped me out, so enjoy this large image of it!



Bath, Somerset: Herschel Museum of Astronomy

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In all fairness, I probably shouldn’t have come here in the first place.  The Herschel Museum was most definitely a plan B, maybe even a plan C.  Initially, we were planning on seeing Glenside Museum and the death exhibit in Bristol, and then proceeding on to the SS Great Britain, until I found out it was £14, and I couldn’t find a 2-for-1 deal anywhere.  So then we decided to go to Bath after the other museums instead, and see the American Museum in Britain, mainly because I was intrigued by the actual Americanness of their “American style cookies and cakes” (I think I’m a pretty good baker, and I’m always skeptical about British attempts to re-create American baked goods.  They usually don’t put enough sugar in.  Or peanut butter.  Or oreos).  But that turned out to be closed until the middle of March (and was also quite expensive).  So we ended up settling on the Herschel Museum, in large part because I still find Uranus far funnier than I should.

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The Herschel Museum also charged for admission, though it was only £6.50, which seemed reasonable relative to the SS Great Britain, but was not so great considering the size of the museum.  I guess I just expect more bang for my buck (pound) these days.  So William Herschel is best known as the discoverer of Uranus, which as I said above, was really my only reasoning behind going to this place (and I insist on pronouncing it Your-Anus, because why wouldn’t you?).  I took astronomy back in high school, and we had to make models of the planets, so me and my friend chose to do Uranus (of course).  There we were, attempting to spray paint styrofoam balls in her unventilated garage, only we didn’t realise that spray paint melts styrofoam.  And having accidentally inhaled a fair bit of paint fumes, we pretty much thought the melting “moons” were the funniest thing ever.  To this day, melting the moons of Uranus remains one of my fondest memories.  So I was extraordinarily pleased by some of the cartoons in this museum, which made ample use of similarly juvenile humour, as comets were consistently depicted as farts issuing from the rear of one or another prominent Georgian.

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Unfortunately, they would prove to be the highlight.  The house was indeed on three levels, as we were promised, there just wasn’t a whole lot on any one of the levels.  We were directed to the basement first to watch an introductory video about the life of William Herschel and his sister Caroline.  William and Caroline were both German, and Caroline appears to have been kind of a Cinderella figure, in that her mother and other brother hated her, and whipped her and made her do all the housework.  She also had scarlet fever and smallpox when she was young, and only grew to about 4’3″. Despite these misfortunes, her life changed for the better when William moved to England to pursue a career in music, and he invited her to join him.  There, he taught her about science and mathematics, and she developed a passion for astronomy to match his, discovering a number of comets herself (she ended up living well into her 90s).  The video also talked about the special telescope he developed that allowed him to make these discoveries, though I wasn’t totally clear on why he switched to astronomy instead of music (the video was narrated by Sir Patrick Moore, and the audio was a little too quiet for me to understand everything he was saying.  He was kind of, um, jowly sounding).

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Also in the basement was an exit to the garden (which didn’t really have anything in it), a ye olde kitchen, and a little workshop showing the tools Herschel would have used to create his telescope.  He eventually built a massive one, which was apparently a big attraction for the royal family, who all came out to see it.

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There were two small museum rooms upstairs, with re-created furnishings, and some objects that actually belonged to the Herschels, as well as various letters written amongst themselves and to various royals.  However, only some of the artefacts had captions on them, and there was no synopsis or transcription provided for the letters, so you actually had to stand there and read through them (Herschel’s handwriting was beautifully clear, and he wrote in English rather than his native German, so it wasn’t really a problem, they just weren’t that interesting, and I wish I didn’t have to read all the way through them to learn that).  For some reason, I thought there’d be more rooms up the other flight of stairs we saw, but it turned out those were roped off, and the “third” floor of the museum was actually the ground floor gift shop/dining room level we’d come in on, which I thought was slightly disingenuous.

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The ground floor exhibits were just a small dining room, with some more cartoons, and a corner of the gift shop containing a replica of one of Herschel’s telescopes.  Lame.  There was a group of Americans looking around the museum whilst we were in there, and apparently one of them was famous (no one I recognised, though she was wearing a silly hat, so I guess she had to be famous.  It was a sillier hat than a normal person would wear anyway), because the admissions desk man was kind of fawning over her, and asked to take her picture in front of the replica telescope.  I am not famous, but I posed with the telescope too, just for the hell of it.  I don’t know why I’m mentioning this, other than I was sort of annoyed by how much more attention she got than us, and also because she said she’d been there before, and I can’t imagine why anyone would go back.  It wasn’t the sort of museum there would be any reason to return to, since it was tiny and had no temporary displays or anything.  Weird.

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I think it’s obvious I was distinctly unimpressed with this museum.  If I’d only paid maybe 2-3 quid, I’d have been fine with it, but no way was it worth £6.50, and I feel that the museum slightly misrepresented its size on its website.  If I’d known how lame it would be, I’d have just sucked it up and paid the extra 7 quid to see Brunel’s Great Britain, because I like maritime history, and Brunel’s pretty cool, so I imagine I would have enjoyed myself quite a bit more there.  There wasn’t even anything funny about Uranus in the museum; honestly, there was far more about comets (thanks to the cartoons) than anything to do with Herschel discovering Uranus (which they sadly pronounced in the unfunny/correct(?) way anyway).  I think you can probably give this one a miss, unless you’re some kind of huge Herschel fan (do those exist?).  1.5/5.

Bristol: death: the human experience @ Bristol Museum + Bonus Taxidermy

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A brief, but only mildly irritated rant, because I feel some explanation is needed: I know you can’t tell, because the title text on my blog shows up in all capitals, but the name of this exhibit is written in all lower case letters, both on the museum’s website, and at the exhibition itself (and you’ll probably notice that I reluctantly follow their model when I talk about it later in this paragraph, hence the need for an explanation).  I don’t know if they’re playing around with being e e cummings or what, but c’mon now, things are capitalised for a reason.  I’d sooner go back to the rather charming Georgian (Germanic?) habit of capitalising most nouns than lose it altogether.  That aside, death: the human experience was my main motivation for going down to Bristol in the first place, because I am a morbid individual who’s into shit like that.  Although I did take my time in getting down there, in hopes of slightly warmer weather, the exhibit ended on the 13th of March (sorry for not getting this post up while it was still on), so there came a point when I couldn’t wait any longer, and we just had to be cool with driving through sleet.

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The neat thing about the exhibit is that it was operating under a pay what you can afford/what you think it’s worth system, which was convenient as I can currently afford very little, and tend to think most exhibits are way overpriced.  The Bristol Museum itself is free anyway, so although we did choose to donate something, it wasn’t strictly necessary (if you weren’t bothered about supporting the museum), as the donation box was in a fairly low-pressure environment (there was a staff member standing nearby, but she wasn’t right on top of you, and didn’t seem to be paying much attention to whether people were donating or not).  I actually really liked the opening section of this exhibit, which was a long, dimly lit gallery filled with objects that make people think of death, like skeletons and vultures.  I liked it less when a shitload of students piled in the door right after we arrived and were breathing down my neck, but fortunately the woman working there saw my obvious irritation (I did sigh loudly and make a comment about all the young people.  I’m kind of a jerk) and instructed half of them to go around the exhibit in the opposite direction, which greatly eased traffic and earned my gratitude.

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However, the rest of the exhibit wasn’t really anything remarkable.  It consisted of about five other small galleries, each dealing with a different aspect of death, from different cultural funerary practices, to death throughout history, and the various ways people die.  I reckon if I hadn’t seen SMRT in Prague, and the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston last year, I might have been more impressed with Bristol’s effort, but it did pale in comparison.  For example, they had one of the Ghanaian fantasy coffins in the Bristol Museum, which was cool, but there was a whole room full of them in Houston.  And the National Museum in Prague devoted a whole large gallery to ancient burial practices, whereas here there was only room for one small case.  I’m not knocking it; they did the best they could with the space they had available, it was just on a much smaller scale than the other museums.

Which is not to say I didn’t learn anything or enjoy myself – I thought the description of the objects that members of the museum staff buried their relatives with was very sweet (someone buried their grandfather with mint imperials, because he always had a bag to hand, which reminded me of my grandma, who we buried with a pack of Dentyne gum, as she was constantly chewing it (oddly, although Dentyne is not sugar-free, she kept almost all of her teeth, so maybe there’s something to be said for it?)).  For some reason, learning that people in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland are given a piece of chocolate to take the bitter taste of the poison out of their mouths depressed me more than anything else in the museum.  Not that there’s anything depressing about Swiss chocolate (though I do prefer Belgian), I think it just made me picture the process of assisted suicide too vividly.  I also liked that there was a sort of “decompression” room at the end that was full of pamphlets about death, including one to help you plan your funeral arrangements.  I suppose I’m not at an age where most people start to worry about these things, but I’ve always felt hyper-conscious of my own mortality, and I definitely think death shouldn’t be a taboo subject, so I’m glad that the museum was encouraging people to talk about these things.  I liked their message, and the content, I just wish there could have been more of it, but like I said, I might just be spoiled by visiting a lot of exhibits of this nature.  3/5 for death: the human experience.

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But, since I don’t know when I’ll be back in Bristol, I might as well talk about the rest of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.  Typical of the museums in many smaller cities, where there’s not dedicated ones for art and natural history and all that jazz, the Bristol Museum was kind of a mishmash that included local history, an art gallery, the Ancient Egyptians, and a good bit of natural history in the form of taxidermy.  If anyone remembers the Irish Natural History Museum from way back at the start of my blog, when I wasn’t yet in the habit of including many pictures, you will know how much I love derpy taxidermy.  (I mean, I definitely talk about how much I love taxidermy in many other posts too, but that was probably the first time.)  This wasn’t quite on the level on the National Museum of Ireland, which is like a Victorian wonderland of bad taxidermy, but there were still some prime specimens here.

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The museum’s mascot appears to be a gorilla called Alfred who lived in the Bristol Zoo during the Second World War, and apparently hated men with beards, among a number of other things.  Well, the poor thing got stuffed after he died, and ended up here, with beardy men staring at him all day long (my boyfriend included).

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The aye-aye was probably my personal favourite, just because I reckon it’s the closest you can get to a Sumatran Rat Monkey in real life (warning, that rat monkey link is fairly gory, in a claymation kind of way, but aren’t Lionel and Paquita adorable together?  I love Braindead.  It’s gotta be in my top five favourite movies), but I am also partial to that handsome bird with the pompadour hairdo.  I am probably fonder of taxidermy than a vegetarian has any right to be, but I comfort myself with the fact that most of the stuff in museums has been sitting around for a while, so it’s not like these animals were killed recently or anything.

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I love dried bats, because they pretty much just turn into adorable little balls of fluff with papery wings, but the award for derpiest animal has to go to that otter.  Or possibly the fox, though his natural regal fox-bearing probably saves him from looking quite as dim as the otter.  Ok, I should probably stop talking about the taxidermy now, I just love it so damn much.

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The rest of the museum really wasn’t much to speak of: a bit of modern art, a decent Egyptian section, a Banksy near the entrance, and a handsome mustachioed aviator hovering over it all, but I feel I do need to mention the toilets, just to see if anyone else thinks this is as weird as I do.  I’m guessing the toilets were still semi-Victorian in nature; if not the actual fixtures, then certainly the stalls themselves.  The bottom half of the stalls were wood, no problems there, but the top halves had glass panels in them. Between the stalls.  Not frosted glass, mind, just normal, sort of patterned glass, that meant you couldn’t see through them super clearly, but could nonetheless get a pretty good view of the person in the stall next to you’s face, at a time when you really don’t want to be making eye contact with a stranger.  The panels were probably a bit above waist level when you were standing, which meant you could just see from head level when seated on the loo, but even that is weird (I mean, I know men just pee out in the open, but they’re used to it).  I definitely did a double take when I walked in and realised I could see the people next to me going about their business (and they could see me doing mine), but I really had to pee, so I rolled with it.  It still weirds me out though.  I don’t care if they’re Victorian or not, you could at least replace the glass with more wood or something.  All this is to say that using the toilets here may not be ideal if you’re shy about these things.  So to recap, fairly normal, albeit slightly generic museum, very strange toilets.  2.5/5.