USA

Waco, Texas: The Dr. Pepper Museum

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Can I talk about blogging for a minute?  Even though I’ve only been posting once a week for a while, I’m at a point right now where even that feels like a chore (although I have no pressing obligations, so it’s not a question of finding the time to do it, because I have loads of time.  I’ve just lost interest).  I don’t know, it’s just when your stats are never quite as good as you’d like them to be and you’re not even sure people are actually reading your (admittedly overly-wordy) posts, it’s hard to summon up enthusiasm to write them.  I’m not sure why I’m telling you this, because I have enough posts stored up that I can get away with doing nothing but editing for another month or two, and I have no plans to stop blogging or anything; I guess it’s just so if you notice a slip in quality, that’s why.  Ennui.  Anyway, let’s move on from my listlessness to the always effervescent Dr. Pepper.

Thanks to David Koresh, you’ve probably heard of Waco before (unless you’re a young person, and then maybe not?).  However, over twenty years have gone by since the siege, and all that remains of the Branch Davidian compound is a small marker by the side of the road that people aren’t really encouraged to stop at.  Happily, there is another, much less depressing attraction in Waco, in the form of the Dr. Pepper Museum.

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I don’t really drink pop very often anymore (not because I don’t like it, but because it’s pretty calorific, and I’d rather save those calories for dessert), and when I do, Cherry Coke tends to be my soda of choice (only the full sugar version please, I HATE diet), at least whenever I don’t have an overpriced imported bottle of Stewart’s Key Lime or Oranges ‘n’ Cream to hand.  However, I’ve nothing against Dr. Pepper; in fact, I probably stunted my growth as a teenager thanks to my frequent consumption of “Dr. Thunder,” the Wal-Mart version of Dr. Pepper, so it was high time I knocked one back in the place of its birth.  Yes, Dr. Pepper was invented right in Waco, Texas, at Morrison’s Drug Store, by a pharmacist named Charles Alderton, aka “Dr. Pepper.”  In fact, in soda jerk slang, you used to be able to order a Dr. Pepper by saying “shoot me a Waco,” which I probably wouldn’t recommend doing today.  But to learn all this inside the museum, I first had to part with the rather steep admission fee of $8 (dollar off coupon available on their website, and I suggest you use it).

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One of the only parts of this three floor museum that seemed even vaguely worth the admission price was right by the start, inside the mock-up of an old-timey pharmacy.  They had an animatronic Charles Alderton who would long-windedly tell you the story of how Dr. Pepper came to be, which was amusing if only to hear how he spent most of his profits on cigars (Texas seems to love its animatronics).  They clearly kept emphasizing how Dr. Pepper is NOT a cola, which I would think is fairly obvious to anyone who’s ever tried it, and if you haven’t, then what the hell are you doing paying $8 to see this museum?!

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Ok, I confess part of my motive in parting with that much is that I was secretly hoping it would be like the Mr. Pibb Factory in American Dad, and it was not even remotely close, but then again, the museum is in an abandoned bottling plant, rather than a working factory.  The closest operational bottling plant was in Dublin, Texas, but that appears to have recently shut down, so I’m not sure where the soda fountain is sourcing their “all-sugar” Dr. Pepper from (more on that later).  Anyway, the ground floor of the museum, other than the animatronic Doc, mostly consisted of a collection of glass bottles from throughout history, and an old artesian well that was blocked up until recently (you can buy chunks of the bottles that were disposed of in it at the shop, if for some reason that should appeal).

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We only really knew the museum had three floors because the woman at the admission desk told us; otherwise, it wasn’t terribly clear.  We were scared to take the only stairs, because they looked like a fire exit (as in, an alarm might have gone off if we opened the door to them), and the lift wasn’t particularly well-marked or inviting, but we eventually just ended up using it.  The first (second in Americanese) floor proved to contain a temporary exhibit about promotional thermometers put out by soda companies (I’m not gonna lie, I’m intrigued by Squirt and gin, since I used to really like Squirt.  Do they even still make it?), and some weird half-assed attempt to explain how weather worked.  The Dr. Pepper memorabilia section was slightly better, even though we didn’t understand why there was a foot-shaped ashtray until we got up to the next floor.

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The rest of the floor space here was taken up with a “Western” theme, including the Dr. Pepper cowgirl (well before my time), a horse made of bottle caps (I think), and a collection of Western themed pop cans ranging from mildly to extremely racist (such as the cringing “Heep Good Soda,” complete with Native American caricature).  Alright, there was a Doc Holiday (sic) soda too, which I would drink just because I love Val Kilmer’s portrayal of him in Tombstone so much, but from what I hear he was pretty damn racist in real life too (Doc Holliday, that is), so I guess he fit in with the rest of the cans.

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We decided to take our chances on the stairs for the trip up to the top floor, and the door ended up not being alarmed, to our relief, just obviously disused (the stairwell was rundown and kind of smelled).  Here we were greeted with a video projection of “Foots,” an enterprising Dr. Pepper salesman who eventually became the president of Dr. Pepper, so named because of his enormous feet, apparently.  Which explained the mysterious ashtray downstairs, as well as all the other foot themed memorabilia (I admit to being relieved that it wasn’t just the result of some employee with a raging foot fetish).

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There were a few interactive games up here (not that fun, especially the marble one, which was really hard), and some crap about Foot’s Christian work ethic, but I rather enjoyed the cinema that was playing videos of retro Dr. Pepper commercials.  Some of those Dr. Pepper songs were damn catchy, even if it was all too painfully obvious which demographic they were attempting to appeal to with each one.

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Back downstairs, there was a shop where you could buy Dr. Pepper merchandise and that elusive sugar-not-HFCS pop, which apparently you can get all over the place as “Throwback Dr. Pepper” anyway (you’d never know from all the hype about it in the shop), but whatever, it wasn’t too expensive.  I was most excited for the vintage soda fountain, where they still make drinks with the actual syrup, but it was ultimately kind of a bust.  I mean, my float tasted good and all, but the girl making it was not very enthusiastic, and I was most disappointed that it was just served in a crappy plastic cup, instead of an actual soda glass.  Every other vintage-style soda fountain I’ve been to has used real glass, so why can’t this place, especially when that’s the vibe they’re aiming for? I don’t know, this museum was way overpriced, and not particularly impressive.  If you really like Dr. Pepper, it might be worth stopping if you’re in the vicinity to try something from the soda fountain (because who am I to tell you to turn down a delicious float; just don’t count on an actual glass), but you can probably skip the museum.  Although that said, I don’t regret going, because if I didn’t check it out, I’d be worried I was missing out on something cool.  It’s not every day you get to go to a soda museum, and it was definitely a uniquely American experience.  2/5.

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Austin, TX: LBJ Presidential Library and Museum

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I’ve always gotten the impression (probably from my mother, who hates the man, even though she was a bit too young to have been part of the whole Vietnam/hippy generation) that Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of the more reviled modern presidents, after Nixon and George W Bush, at least, depending on your political leanings.  But you all know I adore presidential history, and given the other presidential museum options in Texas (the Bushes…I’m sorry, but it happened too recently…I just can’t bring myself to give money to Dubya), LBJ was really looking pretty good.  Besides, we share a birthday (August 27), so I’ve always felt an affinity with the man, despite some of his unsavoury personal habits.  And Austin is pretty much the only city in Texas with a reputation for being vegetarian friendly (and how!  You must get the “popcorn tofu” from Wheatsville Co-op), so that settled the matter.  LBJ it was.

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Unlike some other presidential sites, because the LBJ Museum is also a library and archives, it is run by the National Archives and Record Administration, rather than the friendly rangers from the NPS.  So they made me pay the full $8 for admission, even after I mentioned that we share a birthday, which I still think should have been good for some sort of discount (though I did learn that the museum is free to all on our birthday, and you even get cake (which I will keep in mind for future birthdays)).  Anyway, the museum is on three different levels (the rest of the building is archives, as you will see), and they have a special exhibition space on the ground floor for temporary exhibits somehow relating to LBJ’s presidency.  Currently, it is on the Beatles, since he was president in the 1960s and all.

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I like the Beatles fine, but I’m not a super Beatles fan, like some of the people visiting the exhibition clearly were, so it was good for a quick walk-though (to be honest, I probably liked Elvis’s guitar better than the Beatles’ stuff) to admire those excellently mod Beatles sneakers (they even had a pointy toe, and I LOVE a pointy toe) and get a drum tutorial from Ringo (though I was afraid to give it my all because people were looking at me), but I didn’t feel the need to spend a whole lot of time in there, especially since we only had about two hours before the museum closed.

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So I fairly dashed through the timeline of LBJ’s life on the ground floor, and headed straight for the animatronic LBJ.  You may remember the animatronic William and Ida McKinley from my post on the McKinley Museum, but LBJ blows them out of the water.  His whole head and hands move, just like a real person’s, and he tells a variety of the mildly raunchy stories he was known for.  It had me wishing they had an animatronic FDR at the FDR museum, so I could have experienced this magic with my favourite president (maybe there’s one in the Hall of Presidents at Disney?  I don’t remember, I haven’t been there since I was a kid).

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Speaking of FDR, it soon became obvious that LBJ loved FDR just as much (possibly even more, since he actually knew the man) as I do.  This is also the point when I began to warm to LBJ, because no one who liked FDR that much could have been all bad.  LBJ worked for the WPA (too many acronyms?), as a young man, and was offered a fairly prestigious position in it by FDR himself, which LBJ respectfully declined because he wanted to run for the House of Representatives instead (and he did, and won).  It seems like all his life he tried to emulate FDR and further his policies, making him rather socialist in his leanings (at least in his zeal for making healthcare more accessible to all), which was probably influenced by the time he spent teaching in poor Mexican schools in his 20s, and the poverty he saw there.

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Having gone over LBJ’s personal life and marriage to Lady Bird in the timeline, this floor was devoted to his political career, starting with the FDR days, and ending with his own presidency.  So it of course addressed all the major controversial stuff, like Kennedy’s assassination (which you will hear a lot more about in future posts, this being Texas) and the Vietnam War.

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I think divisive political issues are always a difficult thing to cover, especially in a museum that ultimately aims to honour the presidency of a particular leader, and though the museum was somewhat apologist in its view on Vietnam (LBJ was opposed to it, and saddened by it, but he couldn’t find a way out, blah blah blah), they did make some effort to show the horrific consequences by showing letters written to LBJ by parents whose children had been killed in the War.  I mean, there was pretty much a whole gallery on Vietnam, but it was still clear the museum preferred to focus on his efforts for civil rights rather than the huge negative that was the Vietnam War.

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To that effect, there was a lot in the gallery about the evils of segregation, and what LBJ did to fight it, as well as a little annex at the back of the floor with biographical details about various people who achieved prominent roles in society as a result of LBJ’s policies, as well as all the ways LBJ’s legacy has benefited us today, which was perhaps laying things on a little thick.

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The only way to the top floor, as far as I could tell, was by lift, since it’s a good six stories up (you can see all the books and papers that fill those floors in the picture two paragraphs up).  This held more items relating to LBJ’s personal life, as well as some material pertaining to Lady Bird.

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There was a mock-up of the LBJ-era Oval Office that was pretty neat, complete with a voice over telling you about all the objects in there (he had a custom-made marble-topped table with a pull-out phone in it), and outside the office, a different phone where you could listen to examples of the “Johnson treatment,” whereby LBJ would try to charm/intimidate people.  Listening to his conversation with a female reporter really drove home that the ’60s were a very different time…I don’t think a president telling you he wished he wasn’t married so he could take you up against a fence post like an animal would be seen as “charming” today.  More sexually harassing, if anything.

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Nonetheless, it must have worked somehow, as he managed to win over Lady Bird, who was very intelligent, and frankly, much too attractive for him, especially when she was young (she kind of looked like a prettier version of Ruth Goodman as she aged, not to dis Ruth, because I enjoy all those “Insert Historical Era Here” Farm shows).  There was, again, a mock-up of an office in the corner, this time Lady Bird’s, and a collection of some of Lady Bird’s (whose real name was Claudia) personal items, including dresses and china, because that’s of course how most people think of first ladies, even though she had much more to her than finery, being well educated, a shrewd investor, and providing the charm needed to smooth over her husband’s brashness.

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Heading back downstairs again, on our way out, we got to check out LBJ’s presidential limo, and the rather impressive shop.  I mean, they not only had an excellent range of refrigerator magnets and postcards (both of which we collect), but a big old heap of retro presidential campaign buttons (not actually dating back to LBJ, but I spotted a couple Nixon ones in there.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy one, but it was still cool), and a collection of presidential bobbleheads.  I couldn’t resist the one of FDR with Fala (I think I have a problem).  Although the LBJ museum was, perhaps out of necessity because of the very nature of a presidential museum, apologist at times, I learned a lot about a president I’m not that well versed on (not being the biggest fan of 20th century history, particularly the latter half), and I was in general pretty impressed with the quality of the displays, and, of course, all the bonus FDR stuff.  3.5/5.

Houston, TX: The National Museum of Funeral History

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It seems like late summer/early fall is always such a travel whirlwind for me (and the blog).  First Italy, and now the US, specifically, Houston (which I’m always tempted to mispronounce Hoos-ton in Matthew Kelly style, since I’ve watched far too many old-ass episodes of Stars in Their Eyes).  My boyfriend had to travel there for work, and as soon as I found out, my first thoughts were of the National Museum of Funeral History, which, as readers of my Places I’d Like to Visit page will know, I’ve wanted to go to pretty much forever.  Fortunately, my boyfriend agreed that it and many other things in Texas were worth seeing, so we arranged to meet there for a few days after he was done with work stuff, before flying up to Cleveland for a bit to see my family ‘n’ junk.  The Funeral Museum was my top (only?) priority in Houston, so that’s where we headed my first morning there.  Which is convenient, because in lieu of anything spookier, it’ll have to serve as my Halloween post this year.

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The museum was not that easy to find, being located in a nondescript building on the outskirts of town, but I’m happy to say that it was both massive and deserted when we got there.  Admission is $10, which seems kind of steep until you see the size of this place.  The main gallery is dominated by a splendid collection of hearses, including some that pre-date the automobile.  Numerous other smaller galleries split off from there, focusing on funerals of celebrities, the popes, and the presidents, among others.

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Even though I was dying (pun intended) to see the presidential gallery, I thought I’d restrain myself and save that for last, so I started in the opposite corner of the museum with celebrity funerals.  There was a large display about the Wizard of Oz, primarily about the recently deceased actors who portrayed various Munchkins, with a replica of the Coroner’s outfit, as well as an old video of the actor who played him explaining why he was given the role (he could competently deliver a few lines, basically, having had some experience in show business.  He had previously worked for Oscar Mayer, travelling around the country in the Wienermobile as the “World’s Smallest Chef,” which is a story in its own right).  There was also a Walt Disney corner, but most of the space in this gallery was devoted to some guy’s collection of funeral memorial booklets.  You know, those little pamphlets they give out at a memorial service, usually with a picture of the deceased on the front and some information about their life inside (actually, I’ve never been to a funeral where those were handed out, since Catholics tend to favour those little prayer cards, but I’ve seen them before).

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These were worth remarking on mainly because many of them belonged to people who I thought were kind of cool, such as Jack LaLanne and Al Lewis.  There was also a quiz on the epitaphs of various famous people, which I should have known since they were also actors I liked, including Leslie Nielsen and Walter Matthau, but I did not excel at it.  (I also love Jack Lemmon and Burgess Meredith, primarily from Grumpy Old Men, but I can’t watch the sequel without crying when Burgess Meredith dies.  I also get weepy at that one Twilight Zone, because all the poor guy wanted to do was be left alone to read.  I can sympathise.)

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We accidentally went through the funeral history section backwards, getting to the Egyptians last, but that didn’t matter, because I was most interested in all the Victorian mourning paraphernalia anyway.  I’m already very well acquainted with hair art and mourning jewellery, but the mourning clock was a new one.  I actually think it’s a lovely idea, though obviously I don’t want any of my friends or family to die anytime soon, so perhaps acquiring an antique one would be best (or I could have one made in honour of my grandparents maybe?).  I am definitely goth enough to hang something like that in my house (it helps that the picture on the one on display was Edward Gorey-esque).

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The Egyptian stuff was fine; they had a very blinged-out sarcophagus (I’m a pretty good speller, but I always have to try that one a few times before I get it right), but it was mostly just laminated print-outs hanging from the walls, and not quite up to the standard of the other galleries.

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Especially the Papal Funerals.  Oh my gott.  This was much much larger than I was expecting; every time we thought we were done, we turned a corner and it kept going.  I am, as I’ve mentioned before, an EXTREMELY lapsed Catholic (lapsed all the way into atheism), so I can’t pretend I’ve any particular interest in the popes or their funerals (other than the fun of saying Papa Francesco with an Italian accent), but I was surprised by how much I learned in here.

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From what the colours of the hats mean about the various ranks of clergy, to what happens to the pope’s ring after he dies, and how the whole red shoe thing got started, it was unexpectedly fascinating stuff.  Did you know the pope is buried in not one, not two, but THREE coffins?!  It’s like they’re scared he’s going to turn into a vampire and escape or something.

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My boyfriend was probably most keen on the Ghanaian coffins, which were kept in a slightly hidden-away room about funeral customs world-wide.  Basically, some guy in Ghana started making coffins in shapes that reflected either the dead person’s personality, or something the dead person loved when they were alive, and it caught on and became a whole craze for anyone who could afford one.  On an episode of An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington had a giant Twix made, which we both agreed is the best one we’ve seen (it helps that Twix is probably the best candy bar, tied with Snickers), but the ones here were pretty good too, especially the big ol’ crab (let’s face it, if it’s meant to represent one’s personality, that’s probably what I should be buried in).  There was also some stuff about Japanese and Mexican funerals.

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It’s time to talk about some of the displays in the main gallery; the coolest thing (in my opinion) being a funeral bus (above right).  It was built in 1916, and meant to be a solution to the problem of extended funeral processions tying up roads, since it could hold the coffin, up to twenty mourners, and the pallbearers.  Unfortunately, when they tried it out, it proved to be unbalanced, and flipped; the coffin opened up, the mourners all fell out, and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster, so it was never used again. But apparently some guy lived in it for a while; if you have to live in a bus, I think a funeral bus is probably the way to go.

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Other noteworthy objects included a 1921 hearse with beautiful wood carvings made to resemble drapes on the side, hearses used to carry the bodies of Grace Kelly and Ronald Reagan, and a money casket, with slots on the side to donate coins (I guess in theory to help pay for funeral costs, although it’s just used for fundraising events, and not to actually hold bodies).  Personally, I’m a fan of the old-school body shaped coffins, which weren’t really well represented here, but no matter; the depressing story of the coffin built for three (it was meant for a couple who planned to kill themselves after their child died, so they could all be buried together, but apparently changed their minds, as it was never used) made up for it.

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I finally made it over to the Presidential Funeral section, which was not as big nor as extensive as I’d been hoping (especially compared to the papal one), and focused mainly on Lincoln, I guess because he had the most public and extravagant funeral.  Because he was the first to be assassinated AND he was president during such a pivotal time in American history, the American people really went all out for his funeral, arranging for his body to be embalmed (which really began to become more mainstream because of the American Civil War) and carried on a special funeral train throughout major Northern American cities on the way home to Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried.  One of the stops was Cleveland, and I definitely would have turned up to see it, you know, had I been born 150 years earlier or so, but since I don’t own a TARDIS or other time machine, I enjoyed looking at the miniature model of the train.

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You all know how much I love FDR, and I confess I was hoping for more on his funeral than the brief treatment it got, but alas, that was the fate of most of the presidents, save for the assassinated ones and Ronald Reagan.  A brief blurb if they were lucky (and maybe only ten of them even got that much), and maybe a newspaper article relating to their death.

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The final section was a tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the soldiers from all the various wars who have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  There didn’t appear to be a special exhibit at the time we visited, although future ones on the myths and legends of the graveyard and the history of cremation in America look pretty interesting, and I’m sorry to have missed them.

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I was a little disappointed in the shop (they could have had a better selection of souvenirs relating to the museum, like postcards and books, instead of generic skeleton stuff), and I do wish the presidential section could have been more comprehensive, but overall, the museum more than lived up to my expectations (which were admittedly pretty damn high).  I’m fascinated by morbid stuff like this, so I loved it, especially the Victorian funeral history section and the casket and hearse collection.  In fact, I think there could have been even more funeral history, since that gallery seemed to skip over most of the advances in preservation between the Egyptians and the Victorians, which is a big time period to exclude.  For example, I think the work of early modern anatomists and preservationists like Frederik Ruysch (there he is again), was revolutionary, and well-worth a mention.  Those things aside though, the National Museum of Funeral History really delivered, and I’m thrilled I can finally cross this one off the list, since I’ve been waiting to see it for so damn long.  4/5.  And because I won’t have another post out until next week, and I can’t neglect my favourite holiday, I’ll use this as an opportunity to wish you all a happy (scary?) Halloween!

Presidents’ Day Compilation

Presidential history is one of my favourite topics, so in honour of Presidents’ Day, and in case anyone is interested in learning about a few presidential sites for the holiday, I thought I’d throw an updated version of this post up again!

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FDR is one of my favourites, and visiting Hyde Park made for one of the best days I’ve had since I started blogging. The museum is huge, and you get to see the actual office FDR worked in when he was back home (not to mention three of his custom wheelchairs). Highly recommended!

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Not far from FDR’s home and museum, you’ll find Lindenwald, former home of the often-overlooked Martin Van Buren.  Though his presidency wasn’t particularly memorable, his house was lovely, and I’ll always treasure the picture I took with his statue.

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My parents live less than an hour away from Canton, Ohio, so I’ve spent a lot of time visiting the presidential sites around there.  There’s the William McKinley museum with an animatronic William and Ida, and even the Canton Classic Car Museum has a large display case devoted to this famous former local.

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And, the National First Ladies Museum is also in Canton, in Ida Saxton McKinley’s old mansion. Though the guided tour wasn’t my favourite, the museum itself has some interesting objects.

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Also quite near to my parents’ home (though in the opposite direction) is Lawnfield, James A Garfield’s former home, which I visited for the first time last year.  I think Garfield’s story is one of the most poignant of all the presidents, and this National Parks site is definitely worth a visit.

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Though FDR will always be my favourite Roosevelt, I know there are those who are partial to TR.  If you’re looking for a presidential site smack in the middle of New York City, then the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum is a good bet.  The entire house is a reconstruction, but it contains many of the Roosevelt’s original furnishings, and the museum has the shirt Teddy was shot in whilst giving a campaign speech, amongst many other treasures.

 

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Hope this inspires you to visit some presidential sites yourself (I know I’m planning on seeing more the next time I’m back in America!).  Of course, if you happen to be in London, like I am, never fear, as you can visit the excellent statue of FDR and Churchill on Bond Street (though you might not want to get quite as flirty with FDR as I did)! There’s a couple more presidential statues scattered throughout the British capital, so you could make a scavenger hunt of it and try to find them all, or head out to the Kennedy Memorial in Runnymede, which is technically American soil, if you’re really feeling homesick!  Happy Presidents’ Day!

 

 

Burton, OH: The Great Geauga County Fair

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OK, this isn’t a museum or anything like that, but for me, county fairs always seem to herald the start of fall, even if they are technically usually held in the summer; and despite the cold rain that’s been lashing down on London since the weekend, I’m definitely in an autumnal mood, so this week you get the Burton Fair (this is kind of a rambling, reminiscing type post with a bunch of subpar animal pictures thrown in at the end, so feel free to skip it and wait for the next museum post on Friday if you don’t want to listen to me blather on).  Technically, it’s the Great Geauga County Fair, but it’s in Burton, so there you are.  Geauga County is probably best known for Amish people and an absolute crapload of snow, but it’s also home to Ohio’s oldest fair, founded in 1823 and still going strong (you may also recall me mentioning the Apple Butter Festival some time ago, which is also in Burton)!  It’s always held over Labor Day weekend, and might not be as large as the State Fair, but is still a fairly sizable venue, particularly by the standards of British fairs I’ve visited (not to mention that there’s about 1000x more random fried foods at an American fair). For the first time in a couple years, I was back in Northeast Ohio when the fair was on, so I got to partake in this year’s festivities.

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I’m sure most of my American readers have been to a similar event before, but I’ll give you the basic set-up.  A large portion of the grounds are devoted to vendor booths, rides, and carnival games, but those things have never really interested me so much as the animals and various 4H buildings around the back of the fairgrounds.  I’m from the suburbs halfway between Cleveland and Akron, so my experience of farm animals, square dancing, and the 4H Club was pretty much limited to my annual visit to the fair, and I admit part of the appeal for me was always looking into this strange “country” world that I didn’t really understand (kids excited about gardening?  How odd!).  Of course, I also loved petting cute animals, and spending time with my grandparents, who always accompanied us; my grandpa especially loved it (and also loved the fact that senior citizens get free entry on Fridays).  Nowadays, my grandparents are gone, so fairtime is always a little bittersweet, but I still enjoy it – particularly the chance to stuff myself full of all the classic American foodstuffs that you just don’t get in Britain.

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While the Burton Fair doesn’t quite have the full creative range of fried things that you might find somewhere like the Texas State Fair (although I did spot deep fried pierogies, which are probably not as well known down South), you certainly won’t go hungry either (although if you have IBS like me, you might well pay for it later!).  Though I am willing to go off piste if something else appeals, there are a few items I must always consume.  One: A milkshake from the booth that is near the cow barn (yep).  All they sell are milkshakes, and they are super thick and amazing.  I always joke that they must have been pumped straight from the cow, but I’m sure they have to pasteurise in this day and age.  Awesome nonetheless, especially because in America, we believe in putting ice cream in our milkshakes.  Two: Hawaiian Shave Ice.  This is especially good on the really hot years, but I love it anytime.  Pink lemonade is my favourite syrup, but I usually go for the huge one where you can choose three syrups.  It is far superior to the Sno Cone because the finer grind of ice nicely soaks up the syrup, instead of turning into dirty ice with a pool of syrup on the bottom. Three: French waffles.  My grandpa would always buy a huge bag of these for us to take home (after much grumbling about the price) and we carry on the tradition.  A French waffle is actually based more on a Swedish pastry (although the American interpretation is thankfully sans cardamom), wherein a fluted iron is dipped into a thin batter, and then the whole thing is plunged into deep fat; a thin, crispy waffle emerges, and is then smothered in powdered sugar that will end up all over your clothes.  Greasy and divine.  If I’m feeling brave, I will attempt an elephant ear, but this year my confection of choice was a deep fried Snickers, because obviously a Snickers is far superior to a Mars Bar (Snickers and Twix are my two favourite candy bars).

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I do have to burn off all those empty calories, and that’s where walking around the exhibition spaces comes in.  A few of them are devoted to arts and crafts done by children, and the things they make can sometimes be a bit creepy (see several examples of this, above), especially the section where they demonstrate their sewing skills by making doll clothes (the clothes themselves are always very good, it’s more that some of the dolls the children use look as though they want to eat your soul), but there’s also plenty of cute things, like the parsnip family and that picture of a cat, and I always find it just a little depressing that 8 year old children have more artistic skills than I ever will.

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I also love the building where all the vegetables are on show, especially the giant sunflowers (they always tell you the height, and they are often over 14 feet), but the bee keeping display is my favourite, because they always have an array of honeys to sample.  There are also buildings holding the entries for the adult competitions.  They award prizes for various categories of baked goods, which I always enjoy admiring even if you don’t get to actually try them (probably for the best, as they start to look a bit rough over the course of the weekend).  There’s also prizes for sewing, maple sugar moulding (Geauga County is also known for its maple syrup, and there’s a Maple Sugar Festival held there as well), and even table arranging!

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And of course, there’s a whole building for flowers.  I’m not super into flowers or anything; I enjoy looking at them, although I don’t know the names of most of them, but the flower building is nonetheless a treat for the senses, especially if you come straight from the charming odours of the cow barn.

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Because I am a bookworm at heart, and love reading about a gazillion times more than any kind of outdoor activity, the highlight of my fair experience is picking through the shelves of the Geauga County Library booksale, which takes up an entire building right by the entrance; hardbacks are $1 and paperbacks 50 cents, so I grab as many books as I can justify hauling back to England (my three bookcases pay testament to this), but there’s so much more to enjoy that I haven’t even mentioned yet.  There’s always a band of some adorable old people playing trumpets and clarinets and things, there’s usually a big display of army memorabilia, and a huge field full of tractors (I find the tractors incredibly dull, but certain family members seem to enjoy them).  And I certainly can’t forget about the animals, who fill more of the buildings than anything else, because who doesn’t love adorable animals (though I feel bad for the ones that are going to be sold for food, but it doesn’t stop me wearing leather, so I guess I should just shut up).  I love the goats and rabbits the most, but they’re all pretty cute.  So I’ll spare you from my pictures of fair attendees with mullets, and just leave you with lots of animal pics!  And I’d definitely urge you to visit a county or state fair of this nature if you’ve never been, because they are clearly a riot of interesting sites, sounds, and smells (and that includes some of the people!).

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Pittsburgh: Heinz History Center

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When I lived in Cleveland, I used to go down to Pittsburgh about once every other month, usually to see a punk show and eat a burrito and some waffle fries from Mad Mex.  I guess museums weren’t that high on my list of priorities back then, because I’d never heard of the Heinz History Center until my boyfriend was searching for things to do in Pittsburgh last month (my parents were keen to take us there because of this brewery in an old church that they like, but since I’m not that into beer, I didn’t want to go all the way there just for that).  Actually, he wanted to go there specifically to see the Heinz Ketchup gallery, but it was sadly closed for renovation during our visit (it has since reopened).  Fortunately, there was more than enough to see there without it.

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Although the museum is apparently affiliated with the Smithsonian, it is not free like the Smithsonian, charging a hefty $15 for admission.  However, unlike most places I visit, I do think this one was worth the money.  The museum is spread out over six floors, and we arrived less than two hours before closing (largely thanks to my parents’ inexplicable distaste for the turnpike, meaning we drove there via back roads that took twice as long).  I knew there was no way we’d have time to see everything, so I prioritised.  Obviously, that meant skipping the sports exhibits on two of the floors (though being from Cleveland, even my dad, who likes sports, had no interest in learning more about the “Stillers”) and focusing on the actual history.

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We headed straight for the special exhibition on the steamboat Arabia, which sank near Kansas City, Missouri in 1856, en route to the frontier settlements along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and thus fully loaded with all the supplies a pioneer needed to survive out on a claim.  No one died during the sinking (except a mule), so this wasn’t really a “disaster” as such, but the sunken boat was highly sought after by treasure hunters until it was finally recovered in the 1980s.  Thanks to the lack of oxygen, the goods inside were immaculately preserved, and the museum had a fabulous array of them on display.

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Even though I’ve seen the degree of preservation on the Tudor artefacts from the Mary Rose, it was still difficult to believe that these items had been underwater for over a hundred years, especially the bolts of cloth.  Much to my boyfriend’s delight (as I think he was still a little bummed out about the ketchup thing, although I think he was hoping they’d have something about Heinz Baked Beans more so than the ketchup), they had jars of ketchup and pickles that had been fished out of the wreck.  The exhibit had a fair amount of other activities too: you could make a paper steamboat, have a steamboat race, and even pose with a half a horse (see below).  The signage was also excellent, and I was already quite impressed with the Heinz History Center.

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Heading upstairs (which the museum tried to make into a game by calling the steps a “fitness challenge” and providing stamps at each level; works for me!), we moved onto the history of Pittsburgh, starting with Native American settlements (there’s also a living history village set around this time called Meadowcroft that is associated with the museum, though I’ve never been there) and the early frontier, and moving onto the steel industry that the city is famous for.

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This section was huge, and where we spent the bulk of our visit.  There was simply too much here for me to talk about it all without boring you to death, but highlights included Elektro the robot and his dog Sparko (circa 1939, in case you couldn’t tell); Elektro was capable of smoking a cigarette (of course) and uttering a few phrases:

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Wax figures of Andrew Carnegie, and my favourite, Mr Rogers (I still love Mr. Rogers, he always seemed like such a genuinely kind man, and he was sort of cute when he was in his 20s (though I feel weird saying that!)):

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And a video about the Pittsburgh accent (surprisingly, it goes beyond “yinz” and “Stillers,” which are the words we always took the piss out of them for.  I mean, Clevelanders certainly don’t have an accent, right?), and a dinosaur decorated with pictures of famous Pittsburghers (Pittsburghians?):

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Oh, and stuff about Jonas Salk and polio, and George Romero (director of Night of the Living Dead and all the other zombie sequels.  You can also visit the cemetery where the opening of Night was filmed, which I really must do someday… “They’re coming to get you, Bar-ba-ra!”).  This gallery really was all kinds of awesome.

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We finally moved on to the other floors of the museum, one of which I think we only briefly looked at because it seemed like mostly kids stuff and sports memorabilia, and next headed to an exhibit on glass making, which was more interesting than I was anticipating (it didn’t hurt that they had a picture of FDR and Harry Truman using some fancy glassware right at the start).

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Although Corning, New York, was famed for its glass industry (fun fact: I was in Corning with my parents when I was a teenager, but my dad was too cheap to pay the admission price of the glass museum there, so all I saw of it was the gift shop.  This is also why I never saw Monticello), apparently Pittsburgh had its own little glass scene going on too.  I found this section notable not only because of the glass, but because of a portrait of a guy who looked disturbingly like an older version of Chumley from Pawn Stars.

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We were almost out of time by this point, so we quickly ducked into the “special collections” gallery, which appeared to hold all the miscellany the museum didn’t know how to otherwise categorise.  They had a collection for each ethnic group that has a sizable Pittsburgh population, which means that my own Polish and Slovenian heritage was well represented.

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Again, this gallery just had too much stuff in it to name everything, but I obviously loved the objects with presidential connections, like the alleged piece of George Washington’s hair, and a bed Lincoln slept in.

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There was also a great collection of old carnival games, a nice selection of military uniforms, and more random crap than I could count.

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The loudspeakers started announcing that the museum was closed when we were in the middle of this gallery, so I had no choice but to leave the rest of the floors unexplored.  I am, however, very keen to see both the French and Indian War exhibit and the revamped Heinz Gallery, not to mention Fort Pitt (which is also in Pittsburgh, and appears to have some excellent wax figures; you get half price admission if you present your Heinz History Center ticket) the Museum of Post-Natural History, and the slightly creepy sounding Randyland, so I think a return trip to Pittsburgh is definitely in order the next time I’m in America!  This is one of the best history museums I’ve been to in a while; I only wish I had more time there.  4.5/5.

Oh, and you may have noticed that I recently changed the appearance of the blog; I was just getting sick of the old design, and I like how this new one looks a lot cleaner and makes the categories and archives easier to access. I hope everyone else likes it too (or that at least it doesn’t offend the senses), because this is about the best you’re going to get since I can’t afford to go custom!

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As a treat for those of you who hung on til the end, here’s the best picture:  P1130070

 

New York City: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace

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I know I seemed pretty down on New York in my last post, but it wasn’t all bad.  I ate a lot of delicious pizza, some killer mac n’cheese, and awesome doughnuts from the Doughnut Plant (especially the chocolate chip cookie doughnut, because combining chocolate chip cookies and cake doughnuts is the best thing ever).  I also got a chance to visit Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood home.

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I’m sure you all know by now how much I love presidential history, and of my quest to visit all the presidential sites in America eventually; this was the only preserved presidential home I could find in NYC (there’s a building where Chester A Arthur was inaugurated, but it’s currently just a shop) so it definitely made the list.  I don’t love TR with the same fervour that I do FDR, but a Roosevelt is still a Roosevelt, so I was keen to see it.  The upper galleries of the museum are currently closed for renovation (not sure if this has anything to do with Hurricane Sandy or not…Ellis Island is still mostly closed for that reason, which is why I did not bother visiting it), and there’s not a tonne in the lower levels right now, but it’s free, and they still offer tours of the home, so I really can’t complain too much.

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The house is a brownstone located on E. 20th Street, which is the original location of the house, even if the house isn’t completely original (the decision to preserve it wasn’t made until it was too late, so the house is a re-creation, but Teddy’s siblings were still living when it was rebuilt, so they were able to assist with all the details of architecture and furnishings).  The site is run by the NPS, which I generally consider to be a good thing as the rangers are usually very nice, and the quality of NPS sites seems pretty consistent.  They also have public toilets, which I must say was a real relief (literally) as those are few and far between in New York (in desperation, I even popped my head into a couple of coffee shops, and even they didn’t have toilets, which is just bizarre and unhelpful).  We arrived a little early for the tour, which gave us time to poke around the bits of the museum that are currently there, and watch a short film about Teddy’s life.  Most of the display cases were empty, or just filled with timelines of his life that appeared to have been hastily printed out, but the series of cases to the back of the room held a few things that I really wanted to see.  There was one of his Rough Rider uniforms, which was cool, but it was a bit overshadowed by the ensemble he was wearing when someone attempted to assassinate him.  Fortunately, the bullet was slowed down by his layers of clothing, the copy of his speech that was folded in his shirt pocket, and his eyeglasses case, all of which were on display, complete with bloodstains and bullet holes.  The bullet did go inside his chest but Teddy had a “’tis just a flesh wound” attitude, and refused to go to the hospital until after his speech was finished (and actually never ended up having the bullet removed; probably not a bad decision considering what had happened to James A. Garfield (more on him in a future post!)).  So that was really neat to see.  I also enjoyed looking at some of the Bullmoose propaganda on display, and of course the actual moose head mounted on the wall.  There was also a hallway filled with some amusing caricatures of Teddy, which is always amusing.

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When it was time for our tour, we joined several other small groups of people that had accumulated and followed our guide up the stairs (I believe he was just a volunteer, rather than a ranger, since he wasn’t wearing the uniform like the other employees).  Though there was more to the house when the Roosevelts lived there, the current tour only encompasses two floors of the place, each with just a handful of rooms (brownstones tend to have long, narrow railroad rooms, since space was at a premium – and the house was effectively split in half, with Teddy’s uncle inhabiting the other side, which would have been a mirror image of Teddy’s half).  There was a library, dining room, parlour, nursery, and a bedroom, as well as an outdoor porch that Teddy’s father converted into an exercise space for the boy, as he was famously quite sickly and asthmatic as a child.  We were told how Teddy spent most of his time (when he wasn’t on the exercise porch) in the library, which I found rather depressingly small and lacking in books, even by 19th century standards (especially as the family clearly had money).  There was a cosy looking sofa, however.  The dining room only had one original piece of Roosevelt china (though I’m told Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Teddy’s niece, donated some of hers, so it was technically Roosevelt china, just not from Teddy’s parents).  The parlour was slightly cheerier, as it was quite a sunny room, and housed a fine looking piano and other furniture.  Teddy’s parents’ bedroom was also included on the tour, which included the bed where all the Roosevelt children, including Teddy (or Teedie, as his family called him) were born, and contained an extremely expensive suite of furniture (I guess you had to make the most of the space you had by filling it with really expensive things, since you couldn’t fit in many different pieces.)  So in addition to presidential deathbeds, I can add a presidential birth bed to the objects of interest I’ve seen.

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The tour took about forty minutes, and was air conditioned, which was a welcome relief because New York was extremely hot when we were there (I mention the air conditioning because it was unexpected in a historic property, but I guess since it’s been rebuilt, they have more licence to do things like that).  Though some of the information was fairly basic, I did learn more about Teddy’s childhood, and it was nice to have a chance to see furniture that actually belonged to the family.  There’s a small gift shop downstairs that sells some neat TR memorabilia, like magnets and postcards (I of course snagged one of each), and some books about his life (I definitely recommend The River of Doubt if you haven’t read it yet, it’s about TR’s voyage down a little-explored river in the Amazon, where he and his son nearly died, and is a gripping read). This site was so much more interesting to me than the Morbid Anatomy Museum and I’m sure it will be even better when they finish renovating the museum.  3/5

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New York City: Morbid Anatomy Museum

I’ve finally finished with Berlin!  (I can hear you breathing a collective sigh of relief.)  Sorry to drag it out so long, but I’ve been in America for the past few weeks, sans laptop, which makes it difficult to get much writing done.  But now you can see that one of the places I’ve been visiting is New York City.  I’d never been before (save for the airports), so I was excited to spend a few days there. Because I went with my brother, who has a low tolerance for museums,  I was somewhat limited in the weird attractions I could visit, trying to stick to only one a day (in the end, I didn’t even achieve that meagre total).  Unwisely (in retrospect), one of the places I decided was a must-see was the Morbid Anatomy Museum, in Brooklyn.

Now, I’ve long found their blog quite useful for finding medical museums and various other links to strange things (though not as useful as it could be if they’d simply organise their damn links by location – it is a bitch to search through them all alphabetically as most of the museums don’t begin their name with the city they’re in), even though I was unable to find any medical museums in New York City itself (which is pretty unbelievable in a city that size, and one of the many reasons I prefer London), so I had high hopes for the museum.  We arrived at the fairly nondescript building at noon, just as they opened (the street it’s on is also pretty crummy looking, but must not be that bad, since there was a huge Whole Foods down the block).  The ground floor is devoted to a cafe and shop, which did seem to have many interesting books, albeit at prices I couldn’t afford, and the museum is upstairs and costs $10. I thought that seemed like a lot to pay, but New York museum prices generally seem pretty inflated, so I just rolled with it, and hoped that the museum would be worth it.  As you may have guessed, it was not.

Naturally, you weren’t allowed to take pictures, because that’s how that sort of place works – I assume it’s so other people can’t see how small it is before they visit.  The museum was literally one room.  The current exhibit (which is all that’s there) is on death, so the contents of the room consisted of a few death masks, some spirit photography (where the faces of dead loved ones are superimposed as “ghosts” on a picture), and some mourning jewellery.  The signage was perfectly adequate, there just wasn’t a lot to see there.  To cap it off, the staff were all very self-consciously weird hipsters, and weren’t particularly friendly – the one guy who worked there kept talking to himself whilst we were the only other people in the museum, which I found really off-putting, especially because it didn’t seem like it was something he wasn’t aware of, but rather that he was trying to come across as strange.

There was another room attached, but it was a small library; it had a few taxidermy specimens sprinkled around here and there, and some fantastic books (I know because I own quite a few of them, and would like to own many others if they weren’t expensive and out-of-print), but I didn’t feel welcome enough to sit down and look through any of them (frankly, I don’t even know whether I was allowed to).  I am bearing in mind that their main library is currently closed, so perhaps they have better artefacts in there, as they’re meant to have a permanent collection somewhere, but their temporary exhibit was unbelievably lame.  I admit that I am spoiled by the excellent (and free!) exhibition on death that the Wellcome Collection put on a few years ago, but it’s hard for me to see how “the Morbid Anatomy Museum hosts the kind of temporary exhibitions that very few larger museums can produce” (as per their website), when I’ve seen better at pretty much every other medical museum, regardless of size (and most of those were free or very cheap!).  I know America can do better (for example, the Mutter Museum in Philly, which I adore), so I found the museum, and the price, very disappointing.  There are, however, many excellent places to eat around Brooklyn (I’d recommend especially the doughnuts from Pies n Thighs, and ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery or (the also hipstery, but friendlier staffed) Brooklyn Farmacy), so you might find yourself in the area anyway, but there must be something better to do there than this.  I honestly wish I’d rather just gone to Lorimer Street and snapped a picture in front of a Tree of Heaven or a suitably tenement-looking building or something, so I could pretend to be Francie Nolan (sans the extreme poverty).  I hate to say it, because I wanted so much to like this museum, but it’s nothing special, and kind of a rip-off.  1.5/5.

 

Massillon, Ohio: The Massillon Museum

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Massillon is a town just south of Canton which is probably most famous for being both the childhood home of the film star Lillian Gish, and the home of the Massillon Tigers, which the entire town seems to be obsessed with, though they’re only a high school team (apparently they have the second best track record of any high school team in the country).   I’ve got nothing against Lillian Gish, but I haven’t gotten around to watching any of her films yet,  and I couldn’t care less about football, so I mainly am familiar with Massillon through trips to their local pizza parlour, Smiley’s (mostly on the way home from Amish country, since the Amish aren’t really known for excelling at vegetarian cuisine.  Seriously, I tried to order plain noodles one time, and they still threw some chicken chunks in them), and and their rather adorable Victorian/Edwardian style downtown.  On this trip however, in addition to enjoying a pizza pie, I also took the time to visit the Massillon Museum.  Founded in 1933, and housed in an old department store, the museum is free of charge and, in the way of small local museums, tries to combine art and history so as to appeal to as many local residents as possible.  Admission is free, and the galleries are spread out amongst three floors, easily accessible by elevator.

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The museum’s “mascots” are Oscar the skeleton, and to a lesser extent, Harvey the dog, the “longest enlisted soldier in the 104th.” Oscar is the museum’s literal skeleton in the closet, being hidden away in the basement gallery inside an old armoire with a sign reading “Open me if You Dare!”or something to that effect.  He was donated to the museum shortly after it opened by a local doctor, and is the skeleton of an approximately 40 year old man.  Harvey the dog served in the Civil War from 1862, when he was adopted by soldiers after wandering into camp, until the war ended in 1865, and was wounded at least three times.  He bears a close resemblance to Pete from The Little Rascals, so was probably at least part Staffie.   In keeping with the military theme, the basement galleries also currently hold an exhibition of art done by veterans; some of the pieces are quite impressive.

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The ground floor only has one gallery, and it is presently devoted to a temporary exhibition featuring local artists.  Though some of them are representative of everything I hate about modern art (random piles of crap, paintings of poorly drawn multi-coloured squares, etc), others were pretty cool.  I loved the painting of ravens and lilies, and there were some funny cat pictures too, especially the one of the cat with bat wings.  The jewellery made with real butterfly wings was skillfully done, but you all know of my lepidopterophobia, so I had to quickly look away so I didn’t get icked out.

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Upstairs is home to the museum’s best loved attraction, the Immel Circus, hand-carved over a period of years by a local dentist, Robert Immel.  He apparently had such fond memories of childhood trips to the circus with his uncle that he wished to recreate it (in miniature, obviously) and would exhibit it to children after their dentist appointments (remember, this was the 1940s we’re talking about here).  It consists of 2,620 tiny pieces, and takes up most of the room.  I read that Immel was allergic to the mahogany he carved the miniature horses from, and had to actually receive allergy shots so he could finish working on his project!  Now that’s dedication!  I’m not a big circus fan myself, both because of their clowns, and their shameful reputation where animal welfare is concerned, but this model circus is pretty awesome.  My favourite part was probably the sideshow, and I kind of loved the straightforward names he gave to the attractions (the “fat man” was simply known as “Mr. Obese.” Delightfully to the point).

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Although the circus is enough of an attraction in its own right, they’ve filled out the gallery with other circus related objects, including a collection of acrobats’ costumes, a large tiger painting, some hand-carved clowns, and a few pictures of circus employees.  The clowns in the old-timey pictures are notably creepy (I’ve been writing about a lot of clowns lately, for which I am terribly sorry.)

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I’m really interested in the story of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, so I was excited to see the small case on them and PT Barnum at the back of the room.  The artefacts on show included a photo album belonging to Tom Thumb (which we could only see two pages of, maybe make copies of the other pages for people to leaf through?), a dwarf-sized knife and fork, and, most thrillingly of all, a box containing a piece of their wedding cake!  Again, the box was closed, so I just had to hope it was in there; I would imagine it’s probably in a sorry state these days anyway, but still might have been interesting to at least see a picture of the cake from the wedding, if such a thing exists?

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There were a few other rooms on this floor; being Massillon, there was naturally one on football, devoted largely to Paul Brown, who was evidently a famous football coach from Massillon, and Paul David, another famous coach who was following in Brown’s footsteps; you could have your picture taken with a cutout of one of them, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one, he’s pictured just above if anyone else knows.  Also thrown in here was a temporary exhibit about a local nursing school, with a few medical bits and bobs, a small photographic exhibit of photos from the 1940s, which I enjoyed, and some triptychs and other 15th and 16th century religious art that is part of the collections to pay homage to the man Massillon is named for: Catholic missionary Jean Baptiste Massillon  (who never visited the town; it was named by city founder James Duncan). The section I was keenest on was the small Civil War display against the back wall, where I learned about the regiments of Camp Massillon. Tragically, many of the local soldiers who survived the war were killed during the explosion of the Sultana, which was a Mississippi River steamboat overloaded with soldiers who had just been released from Confederate prison camps, and were on their way home when the explosion happened.  1,800 people died, 83 of them from the division that included Massillon (I’ve always known sultanas (as in raisins) will result in nothing good).

And on that rather depressing note, I’ll end my tour of the museum.  Well, I should mention that the compact gift shop downstairs had Oscar and Harvey magnets, which I found kind of exciting, and there’s a coffee shop right in the lobby, which is probably quite handy in these winter months.  The museum isn’t all that big; you can easily see everything within an hour, though you might want to spend extra time examining the intricacies of the Immel Circus.  3/5.

Cleveland, Ohio: West Side Market

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Merry Christmas Everyone!  I’m going to use the holiday as an excuse to highlight one of my favourite places in the world ( at least, one of my favourite places that is neither a museum nor a library): The West Side Market.  Growing up in Cleveland, no Christmas was complete without at least one visit to the West Side Market to stock up on essentials; from the special farmers’ cheese for pierogies (though I was always partial to potato and cheddar, which I also make every year), the holiday ham or roast (I always gave that one a miss too!), delicious breads, and of course, lots of veg for the side dishes!  My grandma would throw on her Russian style fur hat (which we all laughed at, but she was probably much warmer than the rest of us) and my grandpa donned his adorable flat cap, and off we’d go for an afternoon of leisurely shopping!  Although my grandparents are now sadly deceased, and I no longer live in Ohio, I still come home for Christmas every year, and a trip to Cleveland’s most famous market is always a must.

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The West Side Market just celebrated its centennial last year, and the market building itself dates back that far as well.  I always love spotting its distinctive tower in the distance when driving over the Hope Bridge (which is another piece of architecture I’m very fond of), and as a result of a (small, fortunately) fire this past year, they’ve given the interior an extensive cleaning, so it’s currently less grimy than in the past, though it has managed to retain its distinctive musk (an interesting combination of raw meat, stinky cheese, coffee, and an occasional whiff of something delicious, depending on where you’re standing).  The produce vendors are all in an unheated tent-like structure outside, but the actual market hall is where all the good stuff is at!  (You may notice the much better than normal photos in this post, which are courtesy of my brother and his fancy camera!  Don’t get used to hipstery bokeh or decent picture quality around here though!)

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The interior of the market is a jumble of stalls selling things as varied as Cambodian curries, Chinese meets hipster steamed buns, crepes, gyros, and both traditional and unusually filled pierogies, reflecting the unique ethnic makeup of the city, though the floor space is dominated by the abundance of traditional butchers hawking all manner of beef and pig parts (and lamb, and chicken, etc, etc).  Although I don’t eat meat myself, I’m not especially squeamish about looking at pig and sheep heads, which is probably necessary for surviving the market experience (could definitely do without all the gross meaty smells, but you can always linger by the coffee stall when it gets too much!).

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Of course, though the fun of the market is in exploring all the wonderful things for yourself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the things I like the most.  The best falafel in the world, as far as I’m concerned (and I’ve eaten LOTS of falafel) can be found at Maha’s Falafil, located in the outer left corner of the market over by the fishmongers.  Get the jumbo, you won’t regret it!  I like the enchiladas verde from Orale (though their prices are kind of steep, in my opinion) for a quick snack, and my brother never leaves without sampling a crepe from Crepes De Luxe.  The sourdough bread from Christopher’s is excellent for French toast, and I can put away a loaf of their asiago bread all too easily just by itself.  As far as sweets go (and you all know I have a real sweet tooth), I love the elaborate chocolate covered pretzel creations from Campbell’s, even though I always feel slightly ill after eating a whole one, and Vera’s bakery does proper old school coconut squares.  There’s loads of other bakeries too, so shop around and get whatever looks best that day; it’s probably all delicious!

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The market is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, but mid-day Wednesday or Friday are usually the best times to shop, as all the vendors are open, but it’s not super crowded.  If you ever find yourself in Cleveland, please try to come experience it; most Clevelanders are extremely proud of it (and rightly so), and I don’t think anyone will leave disappointed! I hope everyone is having a marvellous Christmas, and I’ll be back with another Ohio post next week!