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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
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)!
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.
I promised more Halloween posts, and at first glance, Hever Castle might not seem to fit that category, but hear me out. First of all, it bills itself as the “childhood home of Anne Boleyn” and we all know what happened to Anne Boleyn, as well as various other members of the Boleyn clan, so it has a very high potential for being haunted (if ghosts were real, of course). Secondly, it is also home to “700 years of history,” including a room full of torture implements (I suspect they’re not original to the house, but still, they might have souls attached to them or something), so lots more opportunities for ghosts there. Finally, every year during October half-term (it’s just a week-long break from school, but because pretty much all schools do it, it’s like an actual thing here that even people without kids (like me) notice on account of the resulting lack of traffic which means I can catch the bus to work twenty minutes later than normal that week), they do a special Halloween event, and I braved the hordes of children (and their parents) this year to check it out.
This was actually more of an undertaking than just dealing with crowds, as we had to rent a car to get down there, and then pay £15.90 each to get inside (we saved a whole measly pound by booking online the night before), but I was a woman on a mission. You see, I went to Hever Castle some years ago, well before I had this blog, and while we were sitting in the tearoom, having just enjoyed a slice of cake, a man emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of ghost cupcakes, which he grandly set down on the cake table. I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t end up with a ghost cupcake that day (certainly not because I’d already had cake – there’s always room for more cake!); I think at the time the cafe may have been cash only, and we’d spent all we had on the non-ghost cake and tea. At any rate, the memory of the ghost cupcake that got away has haunted me (ha) through the intervening years, and I reckoned that visiting during Halloween half-term was the best chance I had of putting it right.
I could leave you in suspense until the end of the post, but I’m telling this visit like it was, and the truth is that I made a beeline for the cafe as soon as we got inside the grounds. And was rewarded, as you can probably see, with not only a ghost cupcake, but a tombstone one as well. Unfortunately, it was very much not worth the wait. The cake was a bit heavy, and the stuff underneath the fondant ghost was not frosting, as I’d assumed (and hoped), but a marshmallow! I’m not keen on marshmallow at the best of times, and certainly not when I was anticipating frosting. I mean, I ate it, because I pretty much had to after making such a stink about the damn ghost cupcakes, but it was cloyingly sweet (even for me), and would have greatly benefited from actual buttercream and maybe some jam to cut the sweetness (I guess they were intended for children, but I honestly think I was looking forward to that ghost cupcake way more than any child was). I probably should have gone for the tombstone one, as Marcus tells me the tombstone was an After Eight. Anyway, with that disappointment out of the way early, we headed off to explore the gardens.
The gardens were not as disappointing as the ghost cupcakes, at least not the Italianate one, which was bestrewn with Halloween decorations (lame, half-assed British ones, but still), but there was still some measure of disappointment because there was some kind of scavenger hunt for children where if they spotted all the terracotta pumpkins, they could collect candy at the end, and of course there was no equivalent scavenger hunt for adults. Frankly, they didn’t even have to give me candy or anything, I just would have enjoyed the hunt, though if one of the terracotta pumpkins was on offer as a prize, I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down. (I was upset that the terracotta pumpkins weren’t even for sale in any of the many, many gift shops, as I was quite taken with them.)
I guess now is a good time to cantankerously say a word about the way the British celebrate Halloween, which I still find perplexing after living here for the best part of a decade. Halloween is becoming more of a thing here, which is good, because it was still pretty low-key when I first moved here, but I have to say that in my opinion, something just ain’t right with Halloween in England. It is really strange to me that children get dressed up to go wander around a stately home – where I come from, your costume was special – something you spent months planning and really put some effort into (admittedly, I was a vampire like three years in a row because I REALLY liked vampires, but I had a different vampire look each year, and I did genuinely stress about picking a costume. I’d have nightmares where it was Halloween night, and I didn’t have a costume, so I couldn’t go trick or treating), and you pretty much saved it just for Halloween itself, unless you got invited to a costume party or something. Here, it seems like people slap on “fancy dress,” as they call it (confusingly), for any old occasion, and there’s a complete lack of effort with their Halloween costumes. Every kid just wears these awful generic costumes that came direct from Tesco or something, and there’s no creativity on show at all. And the most annoying thing is that aside from Halloween dance parties at clubs (big old nope from me) and a few late night events at museums (and that very unspooky pet cemetery walk), pretty much everything is aimed at children, which is why I had to awkwardly show up to Hever Castle during half-term when we were basically the only childless couple there aside from a couple of groups of foreign tourists. Trick or treating may just be for children (though I actually do quite like passing out candy, not that I’ve gotten to do it in years), but Halloween is for everyone, and I wish Halloween events in Britain would reflect that.
OK, rant over (at least that rant, there may be more). So, despite my displeasure at being excluded from Halloween fun, at least I could enjoy the decorations and all the unintentionally creepy statues that lived in the garden (like Pan there, yikes!). And Hever Castle is also home to a couple mazes. I did not get to go in the water one, which I remembered from my earlier visit, because it was entirely full of children running around while their parents looked on, and I would have felt like a creep going in there (and not in the Halloween sense, but in the weird pervert sense), but I did go in the yew maze, which was just a bit too easy. I wasn’t even sick of wandering around yet when I inadvertently found my way out.
The gardens were also home to some children’s activities that looked like a lot of fun (archery aiming at targets with headless knights painted on them and a repel your own vampire kit that involved planting a bulb of garlic in a pot that you then sprinkled with “holy water”) that were yet again a no-go for adults, so I gave up and we made our way over to the castle itself.
Though I didn’t remember being particularly impressed by the castle on my first visit, this time it ended up being the best part of the day, mainly on account of the vampire questions and answers that someone had placed in each room of the house. I’m still not sure exactly how vampires relate to Hever Castle (ghosts would have made more sense, for the reasons stated at the start of the post), but I’m not complaining, because these were delightful, and full of lame little jokes and puns that I just loved.
I suppose the interiors weren’t half bad either, even without the vampire facts. Though the house was owned by the Boleyn family in the Tudor period, by the early 20th century, it had been purchased by the Astors (of Waldorf Hotel fame), namely William Waldorf Astor, who also owned the splendid Two Temple Place in London, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times. I’d say that the man had taste, except that the rooms he decorated in Hever Castle were my overriding memory of the house on my first visit, and the reason that I wasn’t particularly impressed by it. They would have been fine in an Edwardian mansion, but the style of the Astor rooms just doesn’t seem to fit inside a 13th century castle (with Tudor additions).
But I did love the more Tudory rooms, especially the ones that told the story of Anne’s life, illustrated by wax figure tableaux.
I dressed up like Anne Boleyn for Halloween some years ago, and I’ve always felt bad for her, because she might have been ambitious or even calculating (though it’s hard to say if she actually was, given the way women were treated at the time, and the slurs thrown at her after her death), but really, once Henry took an interest, what was she supposed to do? She had to essentially choose whether to prostitute herself, or hold out for what seemed like the better option of marriage, and she definitely didn’t deserve to be beheaded. The castle holds a few of Anne’s personal possessions, like a Book of Hours she wrote in, and copies of letters sent between her and Henry, the last letter she ever wrote him being especially sad (she basically offered to sacrifice herself so that her brother’s and friends’ lives would be spared, but of course Henry, being an enormous asshole, executed the lot of them).
The room full of torture implements that I mentioned earlier is also depressing, and kind of scary (I like creepy stuff, but the scolds’ masks are a bridge too far even for me. For some reason those freak me out more than actual maiming devices), but never fear, the castle also contains stuff like a random case full of derpy dog figurines to lighten the mood. There’s also a few rooms about the Astor family and their ownership of the house, including the almost obligatory room about life “belowstairs,” which was actually not completely uninteresting, especially, for some reason, the room assignment charts for when the Astors had parties – maybe because I couldn’t imagine having that many house guests every weekend (but then, I’ve never lived in a house that had actual separate wings and I also hate having guests, unless I know them well enough that I don’t have to change out of jimjams).
After seeing the inside of the castle, we still weren’t done, because the estate is vast. We wandered past some splendid animal topiaries, and were en route to a regimental museum when I got side-tracked by an ice cream hut (not the first one I’d seen that day, but the first one that was actually open). After wolfing down a few scoops (much better than the cupcake, though I have to admit that I was surprised that chocolate chip turned out to be chocolate ice cream, because chocolate chip is normally vanilla with chocolate chips in it. I guess that explains why I’ve never had chocolate chip in Britain before) we resumed the search for the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Museum, which is rather well hidden. I didn’t even realise it existed on our first visit, and wouldn’t have this time either if I hadn’t seen it mentioned on the website when we booked the tickets. There are no signs pointing to it once you’re in the grounds, though it is marked on the map they hand you when you walk in, but you really have to be looking for it.
After visiting it, I can kind of see why they don’t publicise it more. It’s not awful, but it’s not particularly impressive, being one long hut where you wind your way through reading posters (or mainly skipping them in my case, as they were overly wordy and not that interesting) with a few display cases. The only real object of note, other than a couple wax figures, was the ceramic figure of the regiment’s desert fox mascot, who is very cute. I do feel bad that no one seems to visit the museum though – at least, we were the only people inside, even though everywhere else on the estate was rammed.
After the KSY Museum, we headed over to one of the gift shops that also housed a collection of miniature houses, which I adore. They had Tudor, Stuart, and Georgian houses, as well as a few scenes from a Victorian household at Christmas, and they were all pretty charming, especially the Georgian one, which I would totally live in if it were real. Apparently one of the sons was a redcoat home from fighting those pesky Americans, and you could see him telling his parents all about it in the drawing room (yes, they were that detailed).
Aside from some fruitless searching for those terracotta jack o’lanterns in the shops, that was pretty much it for our visit, and we strolled back to the carpark (on the other side of the estate) through the water garden, which was very soothing (especially after having my nerves jangled by children running about and shrieking all day). There wasn’t really anything else Halloweeny of note, though I guess I should be grateful that there was even as much as there was, albeit not even aimed at adults, because the vampire facts + activities (that I couldn’t participate in) + Halloween decorations in the garden + ghost cupcakes is about as festive as England ever gets for Halloween.
Hever Castle is undoubtedly really, really expensive, but you do get more or less a full day out for your money, so that’s something. If you’re not bothered about Halloween decorations, I highly recommend coming when it’s not half-term, unless you have kids. The estate itself is pretty nice (and obviously quite photogenic), but I just can’t get over my disappointment at British Halloween events (and I’ll be blogging about another next week), even though I really should know better by now, and Hever Castle admittedly makes more of an effort than most. 3.5/5.
Instead of opening this post with a photo of the outside of the museum like I normally would, I decided to cut to the chase and show you the best and weirdest thing in the museum right at the start (also the front of the museum is pretty boring, because it’s just in the town hall, whereas Minnie the dog (I’ll explain more later) is hilarious and awesome).
We were able to borrow a car for a day a few weeks ago, and though the air felt like autumn and my first thought was to drive out to the countryside to see some foliage, it was only the start of September, and all the trees in London were still green (not that they change to a colour more exciting than brown anyway, but still) so I had to concede that it was unlikely that trees outside the city would be much different. So a plan B then, but one that would still allow me to acquire cloudy apple juice and cider from my favourite orchard shop in East Sussex, because I’m always ready for fall, even if the trees aren’t cooperating. Unfortunately, I’ve been to pretty much everything nearby the cider shop worth blogging about over the years (except Hever Castle, which I’ve been to but haven’t blogged about…I’ll have to go back!), so I turned my search to obscure local museums, most of which I had to immediately eliminate because they’re not open on Sundays. Enter the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. Though they’re not normally open on a Sunday, their website claimed their “summer hours” (til October 8) did include Sunday opening, so I thought we should risk it, especially once I got a look at the photo of Minnie the Lu Lu Terrier on their website.
Happily, the Tunbridge Wells Museum was indeed open (as you may have guessed by this point) and also free to visit. We were able to find parking along the side of the building since it was a Sunday; otherwise I think you’d probably have to head for one of the nearby car parks. We were welcomed by an extremely nice and helpful woman at the front desk, who was very eager to make sure we saw all the highlights of the collection, and she immediately disposed me towards liking the museum.
We began with the toy alcove, and there were so many gems in here I can’t even show you them all, but I’ve included photos of some of the highlights, including a teeny model butcher shop (not that I patronise real butcher shops, but this one even had a little cat in it. A pet cat that is, not a cut of meat). I also really loved the poor derpy Felix the Cat doll, but, as you can probably tell from the opening photo, he wasn’t even the derpiest thing in this museum.
The showpieces of this first room were undoubtedly the massive dollhouse (I think it was Georgian, or at least the house it is based on was), which apparently lit up (the woman working there directed me to a button on the wall, but I pressed it twice and nothing happened, and I was too embarrassed to try again), but since I couldn’t get it to work, I contented myself with peering in through the darkened windows, and could still see enough to know that I would have killed for that dollhouse as a kid (even though I wasn’t particularly into dolls, elaborate old dollhouses are cool. I’d still love to have one, even if it turns out to be haunted); and the old rocking horse, who was nothing like my beloved childhood rocking horse Buckles, but was still a lovely horse (“running through the fields…”).
Most of the rest of the first gallery was taken up by extraordinarily wordy (but not uninteresting) displays about local industries, including cricket balls and much more to my tastes, biscuits (although the company seems to have made mostly water biscuits rather than anything actually delicious). There was a back wall lined with cases filled with everything from flasks to farming implements, accompanied by very old-school captions that were rather charming, but a bit of updating wouldn’t go amiss on some of the labels.
I was very taken with the sheep boots (shown above), but I was most excited about the Biddenden Maids cakes. I’m sure everyone knows by now how fascinated I am by the strange and unusual (and that Beetlejuice is one of my favourite movies), and when I was looking for something odd to write my MA thesis about some years ago, I happened upon the Biddenden Maids. I ended up not using them, because historical fact is kind of thin on the ground where they’re concerned, plus if they actually lived when the legend says they lived, they would have fallen well outside of the Early Modern era, but the story goes that in the 1100s there were wealthy conjoined twins living in Biddenden, a village in Kent, and they donated their lands to the village when they died with the proviso that income from the lands would be used to provide the poor with alms every year at Easter. The tradition continues to this day, and in addition to providing food to widows and pensioners on Easter Monday, Biddenden also gives out Biddenden Maids cakes bearing the image of the twins (I’m not gonna lie, I’ve debated going out to Biddenden at Easter to get one, as it’s rumoured that they also make some to sell to tourists as souvenirs), and a few recipients over the years have donated these to the museum, so I finally got to have a look at them. They were just as splendid as I’d hoped!
The next gallery was dedicated almost entirely to “Tunbridge Ware,”and that’s where Minnie comes in. Tunbridge Ware is a kind of highly decorative painted wood developed for the tourist trade in Tunbridge Wells (as you might be able to guess from the name, Tunbridge Wells is home to a natural spring, and thus became a spa town in the Restoration, like so many other towns with healing waters, so there were plenty of tourists coming through), and there were many, many examples on show in this gallery, but the box used to house Minnie is the most notable of all. Minnie was a Lu Lu Terrier, apparently an unusual (and unfortunate-looking) Chinese breed, and when she died, her owner decided to preserve her in high style by placing her taxidermied body inside a huge and elaborate Tunbridge Ware box. The photo on the right is of what was probably my favourite Tunbridge Ware design in this gallery, and shows a gentleman encountering a sweep and his donkey in the night, which he took to be the devil, hence his fright.
I also enjoyed these charming, rather primitive collages by George Smart, one of which was blown up and featured on a large banner outside the museum, as it was evidently a heritage weekend when we visited. Which probably makes not seeing the famous Pantiles (the other main thing Tunbridge Wells is famous for, being, as far as I can tell, simply a tiled shopping district that has been given a fancy name) whilst we were there even more of an oversight, but we were worried about getting a ticket if we left the car parked where it was for much longer, so we high-tailed it out of Tunbridge pretty sharpish after leaving the museum.
But I’m not finished with the museum yet! There was also a small room with a few paintings in it, as well as a letter from Nelson (written after he lost his arm, to judge by the handwriting, though it still looked better than what I can achieve with my dominant hand), but the taxidermy is really what I need to show you. The final room of the museum contained the obligatory geological exhibits, but also a small taxidermy collection, the wildcat and squirrel shown here being highlights. There was also a splendidly derpy fox cub. I also liked that they thoughtfully kept the butterfly cases covered (probably to protect them, since I’m guessing they didn’t know about my lepidopterophobia), as it meant that I didn’t have to look at them.
As you may have guessed from the post title, the museum is also an art gallery, which is located just across the hall from the main museum. The exhibition when we visited was called “Springlines” and was meant to be an exploration of “hidden and mysterious bodies of water.” It wasn’t quite as exciting as the title promised, being a collection of fairly ordinary landscapes, but I did like how the pictures were accompanied by poetry, which did at least add something evocative to the paintings.
Considering my past experiences with local museums hadn’t led me to expect much out of Tunbridge Wells, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Having very friendly staff probably helped, but I was also impressed by the sheer array and eclecticism of objects on show, and thought the captions were generally quite informative, for all that a few of them could use an update. 3.5/5, it definitely exceeded my expectations, and was worth coming to for poor ridiculous Minnie alone.
While we were (sort of) in the area (well, it is very close indeed to the aforementioned cider shop (with limitless free samples) anyway), we decided to go for a walk around the bit of Ashdown Forest that was introduced to the world by A.A. Milne as Hundred Acre Wood. I’m sure I read the Pooh books at some point, but I don’t really remember them very well as most of my Pooh memories are dominated by the cartoon, which I loved as a kid. There isn’t much to the walks; you can opt for either a “Short Pooh” or a “Long Pooh” walk (obviously I was making endless poo jokes), and the short Pooh is very short indeed, so we went for the Long Pooh, which primarily involved walking up and down two miles of hills (and stepping in lots of actual poo, due to it also being a horse trail) around a heath which was supposed to be Eeyore’s Gloomy Place (poor Eeyore. I think I’m a cross between him and Rabbit), but we also took in Roo’s Sandy Place, the North Pole, the Heffalump Trap, the Enchanted Forest (really more of a heath, like the rest of it), and the A.A. Milne memorial along the way. It is literally is just a walk in the country, but I think it’s kind of nice in a way that it’s not all commercialised (much as I would like to see some statues of Pooh and friends to help bring it to life, the fact that you have to use your imagination means that it’s not very busy. There is a tearoom down the road called “The Shop at Pooh Corner” or something like that, but that’s really only the concession to capitalism here). Just mentioning it as something else to do if you find yourself in the Sussex/western edge of Kent countryside.