Sunday, October 23, 2016

#43 - Museums

Peace Garden on the grounds of the Imperial War Museum
This trip found my museum focus to be primarily historical; I usually mix it up a little more.  I also seemed to spend a lot of time looking at exhibits that focused on war in one way or another - although a variety of time periods.  I was surprised to add up the number of places that I visited when I returned from vacation and realized that I had achieved this goal in one trip.

I must note that I have adopted the habit when visiting larger museums of choosing one or two galleries to focus on.  This lets me linger on all the details in those areas, but still not feel burned out by the experience of visiting that particular museum.
15" Naval guns outside of Imperial War Museum

While in London, I visited the Imperial War Museum.  I had heard that the World War I section was not to be missed and wanted to take a look.  The British experience of the first World War seems like it would be very different than the American one.  Though the Channel separates the United Kingdom from mainland Europe, the closer distances involved (compared to the U.S.) must have made the transitions between home life and the trenches abrupt indeed.  Overall, the parts of the exhibits that focused on the beginnings of the war and life on the home front seemed to reflect a disbelief (even to this day) that the war was beginning.  The walk through the reconstructed trenches (towards the end of the exhibits) gave a very good feel for how exposed (overhead) and confined (in the narrow twisting walls) the soldiers must have simultaneously felt.  A good, but sobering look at this conflict.
I felt a little uneasy about falling objects in the Imperial War Museum lobby

I left the Imperial War Museum and headed forwards in time about 25 years to the Churchill War Rooms.  I thought one of the best parts of these displays were the video monitors that gave comments of people who had worked in these areas ... some of these people - particularly the women who worked as secretaries - had not told even their families about their war work until years later.  There were some interesting anecdotes about what it was like working with Churchill who had some interesting quirks.  I actually found the rooms less interesting than the exhibits about Churchill himself.  I've seen other underground WWII installations, so I did have some ideas going in on what it would look like.  I did not, however, know how devoted Churchill was to his wife or that he had a favorite cat that would lounge on the bed with him as he did morning paperwork.  And, as a purely personal amusement ... one of the war room desks looked EXACTLY the same as the metal one that I had for many years when I started my current job.

This is a two person costume - at the V & A Museum
Having had enough of war for the moment, my next museum was the Victoria and Albert in London.  I chose the jewelry rooms and the temporary theater display to visit.  The jewelry was fascinating; I wish that photography would have been allowed in that area.  The time periods ranged from very early in human civilization to present.  One particular piece was a bodice ornament from about 1850 made of diamonds in the shape of a spray of flowers; the individual blossoms were on tiny springs so that they would bounce as the wearer moved.  I couldn't help but wonder how that affected their dance partner's concentration level.  Even jeweled presentation swords were included among the rings, necklaces, and other bits of jewelry.  The last display was a huge spiral of gemstones showing off color ranges of each.

Costume hat in the shape of the Sydney Opera House - V & A Museum
 I had time to visit the theater exhibit as well.  I have a keen interest in costumes, and there were some fabulous ones on display.  The life-size rhino was so realistic that I actually wondered at first glance if it was a stuffed specimen that had been used as a prop.  Other interesting cases included scale models of famous theaters ... it was fun to notice that I had been in several ... and models of London theaters with the mock-ups for set or lighting design for particular performances.  Unfortunately, these did not photograph well through the cases.
The little white jar held kohl in an Egyptian pyramid

The day that I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I had time for a brief stop at the British Museum in the morning.  One of the things that I love about this museum is that every time I have been there I have been allowed to touch real historical artifacts.  If you go, ask at the information desk if there is a specialist located in a particular area or go to the Hall of Enlightenment and look for the docent with a tray of items from different time periods.  Items on the tray this visit ranged from a hand ax that is millions of years old - perhaps even made by Neanderthals rather than early humans - to 14th century Persian tile.  Some of the items were ones that I had seen on my last visit to the British Museum; however, new to me was a tiny white stone jar that was found with Egyptian grave goods in a pyramid and held kohl (cosmetics for use in the afterlife) and a brass instruments used in the Arab deserts for navigating by the stars.  It certainly gives a personal connection to hold something that has lasted for many years and wonder about the people who made and used it.
In the British Museum

One of the museums that I had most anticipated visiting was the Fan Museum in Greenwich.  I learned during my visit that the collection (and the museum itself) was primarily the work of one woman who had donated her collection to start the museum.  Unfortunately, I felt that this meant that there was less variety in the fan styles than I had hoped.  I really love the brise style of fans (where the folding fan is made only of the support sticks) which are generally carved, but there were only a few examples on display.  The majority of the collection seemed to consist of folding fans with a painted panel (made from paper, kidskin, etc.) attached to support sticks.  There were a bare minimum of other styles (like non-folding fans) included.  The time period represented by the collection also seemed fairly focused in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  So, not quite what I had hoped for, but I still did learn a fair amount about fans - terminology and how they are made.

The Cutty Sark
As a counter-balance, my next stop in Greenwich - the Cutty Sark - was much more interesting than I had expected.  This ship had been a working tea clipper and has now been refurbished and placed into permanent dry dock.  After touring through the ship, I have a great respect for the men who spent several months in the tight quarters as it made its way from port to port.  Seeing the tiny area where 20 or more seamen slept and kept their belongings and realizing that it was about the same size as a handicapped bathroom stall made me very grateful for my own home.  Even the master's cabin had a bed much smaller than I would even want to nap on.  It must have been an advantage to be a small person if you were a seaman.  Below the hull of the ship was a collection of figureheads from ships; the variety was amazing.  I had not realized how small some of the carvings were; I always pictured a rather large figurehead or just a plain spar at the front of these vessels.

On the deck of the Cutty Sark

Officer's dining room of Cutty Sark - drinks went in the wooden hangers

The master's room on the Cutty Sark

Rigging ropes on the Cutty Sark

Collection of ship figureheads located under the Cutty Sark
 After my visit to the Cutty Sark, I climbed the hill to the Royal Observatory.  It seemed almost obligatory to take a photo standing at the Prime Meridan.  The view from the top was worth the climb, but I disappointed myself by missing the drop of the time ball by about half an hour. I had not realized until I started going through the exhibits that this was actually a residence as well as a workplace for the Royal Astronomers for many years.
View from the Royal Observatory
Standing over the Prime Meridan

Unique sundial - the point between the shadow of the dolphins' tails points to the time

I also visited the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  However, it was my fourth museum of the day, so I was losing energy at that point.  I was impressed by the number of original paintings that were incorporated into the displays that I visited.  This is unusual in my experience to see a museum with such a mix of paintings and artifacts to tell the story of the past.  I was also pleased to see as I entered the museum that one of the sculptures that I had previously seen on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalger Square has found a permanent - and appropriate - home at this location since it depicts a giant ship in a bottle.

This officer's story was the centerpiece of the Royal Dragoon Guard Museum at Edinburgh Castle
While in Edinburgh Castle, I visited both the Regimental Museum of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard and the Museum of the Royal Scot and the Royal Regiment of Scotland.  I think these would have been more interesting to me if I had a better knowledge of British history since I recognized only a few of the names.  There were some thrilling stories though.  In particular, the tale of Ensign Ewart capturing the French eagle standard at the battle of Waterloo.  I was amazed at how detailed the description was ... every sword thrust and slash was described.  I was even inspired to look this individual up after I returned home since the exhibit did not say what happened to him in later life.  Sadly, I could not find much other than that he lived to the age of 77 and was sort of a shy fellow.
A favorite art piece at the National Museum of Scotland
The last museum I visited was the National Museum of Scotland.  This is sort of a curious blend of museums - science, children's, natural history, historical, etc. - I went through most of the displays on the lower floors which included stuffed animals, historical fashion exhibits, a huge artistic clock that played music and moved on the hour, stories of famous individuals, and a great hall that had science concepts with hands on displays.  I loved the science part; it was very engaging even for adults and definitely drew the kids.  However, I had really gone hoping to find out more about Scottish history.  I did find this wing and started with the oldest time period at the lowest level.  There were some great objects, but I found the layout of the displays puzzling since there was no clear route to follow either ideas or a chronological progress.  So, some great stuff, but I'm sure that I missed a lot of it since I ran out of energy after three floors (went through prehistory to mid 1700s).
Part of a choir stall at the National Museum of Scotland - I loved the differences in the carvings

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