Sunday, December 31, 2006

24hrs on the go

Canadian tundra, from 40,000ft

The longest of days yesterday - it sure takes a while to get over to the West coast of Canada from the UK. Especially when your conncting flight goes even further into Europe, like mine did. Up at around 6:30am, then off to Edinburgh airport, which was extremely busy - groups of kilted Scotsmen off to celebrate NYE in various cities across the continent. After a short flight to Schipol in Amsterdam, a long series of queues later, I was again en route to North America, just under 10hrs away. I had a brief set-to with a pimply Dutch security guard about the bottle of water I was carrying - I'm fully aware of the liquid restrictions, but I'd bought it at Edinburgh airport and even had the receipt to prove it. He wasn't budging though "You can either drink it here, or we shrow it away" he said (Dutch accents are hard to type phonetically). I shrew it away.

I'm always entranced by the on-board map you get on planes, the little aeroplane graphic inching slowly across the world. We flew in a curving arc over the UK, Iceland, Greenland, and the far north of Canada, pictured above. It was like this for hours, just rock, ice and water, flat and featureless. I got talking to the woman next to me, who was from Vancouver and had just come back from seeing friends in Madid (I think her name was Zoila, or something similar). I aksed her if anybody lived down there. "Oh yeah, miners mostly. Gets to 50 below in winter. A tough place to live - they don't bring their families". We flew over the Great Slave Lake, which was the other side of the plane when I took this photo. Then over the Rockies and on towards the coast.

Vancouver is ringed with mountains, Zoila pointed out all the names, but the only one I can remember is Grouse Mountain. It reminded me of the time I flew over the Southern Alps in New Zealand, massive craggy peaks covered in snow. Winter sports are a major thing here, and almost every mountain had flat white ski runs sliding down the side from the tops. Large floodlights picked them out, so each looked like a shimmering white ribbon. We flew really close to them, getting incredible views of the city, before shooting past and banking hard right for the final approach. I managed to clear customs and immigration quite quickly, and amazingly my trusty Lowe Alpine ruckpack was quietly whirring around on the conveyor when I got there.

After a few buses into town, we arrived at our accommodation - we are staying here, and it's brilliant. I think Andy and Jess were so impressed they'd like to move in immediately. It's a fantastically-appointed studio flat with a seperate bedroom, all Ikea-d up and with a friendly owner who lives upstairs. He introduced himself whilst struggling to hold a large tabby cat that wanted to bolt out into the garden. We had a quick tour from him, then dumped our stuff and headed off to meet the others staying at the Sheraton (oh yes), then to a burger place downtown for some food and beers. The Canucks (ice hockey) were playing, and this place offered $2 beers every time they scored. I think they got 5 or 6 in the end. By then we were flagging, and we got the bus back. I started to unpack, and looked at my alarm clock - still set to Edinburgh time. It said 6:30am. 24hrs on the go...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas Wishes from DUaB!

Ho ho ho, everybody (and so forth)

So here we are again, the festive time of year is upon us! Well, really it was upon us at the start of November thanks to the evils of marketing, but I think December the 20th is near enough for the Christmas post. All the streets are lit up, the shops are crowded with nervous looking men, and Nigella Lawson and her hobbity children have just been on the telly cooking sprouts with chestnuts and marsala. Tomorrow is my last day at work (for a week), it's my final office Christmas lunch (out of four), and then there's the muddled packing and Virgin train experience back home for the holiday. Although I managed to get a cheapo First-Class ticket so I'll be all hoity for a few hours. Get me.

If you've been with me for a while, you might know I shut down briefly over the celebratory period - I find it hard to think of things to write about when I'm brim full of sprouts and lager. So I hope you all have a fantastic Christmas, wherever you are, and get that special present you always wanted (Optimus Prime, here's hoping). 2006 has been a pretty good year, blogwise, as I reached the hallowed 20 hits a day average (I've slipped back to 16 now - I blame the posts about museums), and got my 5000th visitor - although I bumbled along for over a year before I got the counter uploaded. I also found all kinds of great reads out there in the blogosphere, I heartily reccommend the links while I'm off for a week.

Speaking of which, after that week I'll be back with a bang, as once again I'm on the road, rediscovering the true substance of DUaB - it started out as a travel blog (the DU bit), after all. On the 30th of December I go off for a two-week trip, so check back then for live daily updates. Until then, have a very happy Christmas, and I'll see you all again in Vancouver, Canada.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Silent Shuffling

Santa delivering a different kind of present

There can't be a worse time of year to be in a Post Office than the last postal date before Christmas. There are several of these, of course - the earliest being for those cards going furthest. I've managed to acquire plenty of friends in far-flung places, so the other day, on the final day, I was queueing up to get the stamps needed to mail a small piece of light cardboard to the other side of the planet (72p). The line in the central George Street post office was truly epic - I opened the door and everyone looked at me (as you do automatically when someone comes through a door), it was just a sea of tired faces. So I did a quick about turn and went down to my local Post Office where the queue had to be shorter. It was, but only just.

The UK has 14,000 Post Offices, I would think every UK citizen has stood waiting in one at some point (apart from maybe the person who has their face on the stamps; and I don't mean Santa Claus). Apparently many are struggling - the Government recently announced plans to close 2-3,000 of the lesser-used rural ones. The General Secretary of the fancifully-monikered 'National Federation of Subpostmasters', Colin Baker (who also runs the Timelord Union), said in response "Post offices needed to introduce more modern products and services", as today the whizz-bang generation shop for everything online and in large supermarkets and so forth. So are Post Offices modernising? My thirty-five minute wait to buy a dozen stamps - oh yes - gave me ample time to conduct a survey.

The very first thing I saw inside the door? The key thing for consumers to entice them in? Pickled Onion Space Raiders, in their familiar dark blue box - and still at only 10p. They have been 10p for about thirty years - when 10p was a good daily wage. Now we're spending £3 on hand-rubbed partridge jus and sweet polenta flavour snack delights, and the best value snack on the planet has crashed in price, yet remains 10p. I can't work it out. Anyway, I digress slightly. The key to Post Offices is impulse shopping - you're a restricted figure, shuffling along at 30cm a minute, they can leave things in your field of vision that you can't resist. I had to restrain myself from wildly snatching a plastic lottery card holder (68p, choice of three colours), a badminton racket, and a bottle of kitten milk in a teat-shaped bottle.

There's an entire range of minimally-priced goodies sold at Post Offices on a large white rack - called 'Little Things'. Their slogan is 'Every Little Thing Helps', which I'd have thought would interest the lawyers of Tesco. Here's what I saw for sale, on one rack (and this is only what I could remember) - thread, tacks, tape, laces, combs, balloons, padlocks, fuses, aerial sockets, drill bits, tweezers, bandages. The kind of stuff you have a drawer for in the kitchen and never need until you can't find it. I suppose that's their marketing ploy. Maybe I underestimated them. At this point, I'd covered half the ground to Terry and Waheeda the two servers (I felt like I'd known them forever), and reached the piles of unsold newspapers ready to go back to be pulped (universally the Daily Mirror). An old lady tried to winkle into the queue by pretending to be cheerfully potty, but being British we moved slightly closer together to deny her a spot.

Here's a question for you - who on earth writes Airmail letters these days? You can still buy the pads - which have a picture on it of the similarly defunct Concorde, rather fittingly. I always thought it was specially light paper for cheapos writing to Uncle Bernard putting down the colonials somewhere, to tell him the cricket scores. People who were too mean to pay the postage for a real paper letter will by now have discovered email or some other method of communicating that is free (or essentially free). But after mulling this over for a while I found myself at the magazines section, and could peruse what was vying for the attention of the British public. Celebs getting married or divorced, flashing their knickers (or lack of them, at the moment), who got fat or thin. Mags about angling, cars, knitting, hair 'Hairstyles Only' "...not a scalp inside!"

The new issue of Hello! has Brad and Angelina on it, the latest 'No.11' has Anthea Turner. Speaks for itself, really. Although I take issue with the former's claim of the Pitt-Jolie's 'beautiful children'. Have a look for it when you're in the newsagents next, it's been a while since I've seen three amazingly wierd-looking kids. Fair play to them. Anyway, my gaze was then enticed by more wholesome fare - 'Animals and You' with 4 sparkly gifts and a feature on sweetest pinups - not Matt from Busted, but touchingly a baby seal cub. The junior section is always the most fun to look at, but it makes you feel old. 'Classics from the comics' is a combo magazine from major kids publications, listed on the front. Only three of them I'd ever heard of - The Beano, Dandy, Sparky, Beezer, Nutty, Topper, Crackers, Buzz. Sparky? Crackers? What happened to Whizzer and Chips?.

Thankfully by this time I was almost there. I managed to retain some dignity after my temptation by sparkly gifts and pathetic knowledge of comics, at the gossip section. Crap, all of it. On the one hand, you have Love It (60p) - sample headline "My nipple dropped off after botched boob job", then the very next magazine is Reveal - sample headline "3 day 'Panic Diet' - lose your jelly belly." At the risk of this turning into a Media Studies essay, what kind of message does that send out to girls? Stick with the sparkly gifts, that's my advice. Also if anyone considers buying the 'Official Lost Magazine' - with 'behind the scenes interviews with the cast of the hit TV show' I would only say this. The writers make it up as they go along. It means nothing. Nothing! That's what I was thinking when Waheeda called out to me, and a rough prodding from an old bat behind propelled me towards the counter, and all pointless thoughts ceased. Post Offices are great.

And is it just me, or does the Royal Mail's official Christmas stamp (above) feature Santa doing a poo down a chimney?

The Post Office
Post Offices - a Community's heart
Space Raiders

Monday, December 11, 2006

Botiful maybe, but is it Art?

Your author wondering what to make of it

London is of course one of the world centres of art - the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square has well over 2000 priceless works, and the National Portrait Gallery is extremely popular - as are the more contemporary Tate Modern and Tate Britain. In fact, a list of London's main galleries alone is enormously lengthy. You could read the listings for days and still not find something to see - or worse, find many things to see but with time for only one. I was round at my brother's flat in Whitechapel last Saturday with a loose afternoon in prospect, when a bit of culture was suggested - a trip to a gallery. However, it was to be like no gallery - or art installation - I'd seen before.

It was called Simply Botiful, by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, and was on display at the Hauser & Wirth Coppermill on Cheshire Street, near Brick Lane. If you live in London or will be there before March 18th 2007 (when it closes), and have an interest in unusual/untypical/ unsettling art - then I strongly urge you to read no more of this post (surely a first for a blogger). Go along with no preconceptions, as I did, and you'll get the best out of the exhibit. I'm going to describe what it was like, and I really can't help giving everything away about it. So please, you'd be better served by going off and watching the telly. In fact, that might apply to the rest of you as well - but I'm going to describe it anyway.

According to the PR blurb on the gallery website, Büchel "creates spaces where the audience encounter claustrophobic tunnels, dead ends and psychologically unsettling scenarios." I had no inkling of any of this, as my brother didn't tell me a thing about it - other than the fact that it involved climbing ladders. This point was made again when we arrived at an anonymous red door in front of a backstreet grey brick warehouse. Mark pushed a door buzzer, and we walked into a small 70's-style hotel lobby. A man came out of the office and gave us a clipboard to read - we had to sign a waiver absolving the gallery owners of any blame if we were injured or damaged our clothing inside. Still not knowing what to expect, I signed and we walked up the carpeted stairs.

The first thing you notice is the sheer abundance of stuff, and the interactivity. The first half-dozen rooms were a furnished shabby hotel, with untidy beds everywhere, and countless personal possessions in the rooms. You could walk around unhindered, looking and picking up the bits and pieces, exploring, trying to find clues as to what it might be about. Almost instantly we found one - a small hole sawn into the back of a wardrobe, hidden by hanging clothes. With me going first, we crawled through and came out in a room with a destroyed moped in a tank, a small wire cage, bags of rubbish, and ear-splitting death metal music. Fingers in ears, we rooted about looking for an explanation, before scrambling back through the wardrobe into the room and on to the other parts of the hotel.

Just as your mind has processed that it must be a cheap hostel for immigrant workers, or sex workers, or something, you turn a corner and there in front of you is a warehouse. On the other side a staggeringly vast concrete room stretches out, filled with junk. Countless fridges sit by a production line, shipping containers stacked high, caravans, mobile homes, heaps of rusting junk, a container lorry. Mouth agape, you go down the steps and wander round. This is where the interactivity really begins. You can open the fridge doors and look for things - one we found had a memorial plaque on, like a bench at a city park, for example. The container in the picture above had a recreated sweaty living area, with 2-bar fire, TV, piles and piles of items (books, curios, clothes, all kinds of stuff) - and of course the ever present beds.

Also in that picture is the articulated lorry. You can hoist yourself up into the back and walk around it - you can just make out hanging sheets and bunk beds. There must have been ten or more, all with musty sleeping bags, lamps, and books - as if the occupants had just nipped out for a smoke. Suddenly in the gloom you find a small hole cut into the floor of the lorry. Letting yourself down onto cinderblock steps, you come out in a tiny, low-ceilinged room carpeted in Muslim prayer mats. A narrow corridor - barely wide enough for one person to squeeze down - leads to a round room. Here it's totally dark, so my brother and I used our phones to shine some light around - the room had a ring of simple chairs, bibles and dozens of Page 3 pinups on the wall.

These seemed to be continuing themes - everywhere were beds, religious symbols, things to do with poverty, pornographic images, and of course junk. But was it junk, or items of importance to the people involved? The rooms looked unsettlingly lived-in, some with food still on the tables in a Marie-Celeste way. Each time we scrambled through a hole or up a ladder it resulted in more personal effects, more religious imagery. The one that stands out was a container wallpapered with pages of girlie mags, with a freezer in the corner. Wandering over, you get a shock when the freezer has a ladder in it, leading into a rocky hole about 15ft deep. So down you go, and end up crawling on wooden duckboards along a gloomy shaft. Eventually you come out inside a massive marquee, surrounded on all sides by earth. A single block of it stands in the centre, and walking round it reveals two Mammoth tusks sticking out, as if the whole thing is buried there. On the way back Mark noticed one of the geological bands of rock in the dig wasn't rock, but bobbly white Polystyrene.

This becomes the big question of the exhibit - how much of it do you accept? How closely do you look? It would have taken hours to open every fridge, look in every drawer. It was very easy to get carried away - I got politely told off by a member of staff for climbing a ladder that wasn't part of the show (bolted to the side of one of the containers) - by that point I was in full Jungle Jim mode, trying to climb everything. My brother said he noticed a post-it note with a phone number on it. Was this part of the exhibition? Were we supposed to ring it and find out a secret, or a clue, or something? Or had a visitor simply stuck it up wanting to be a part of the installation? Or was it completely unimportant and meant nothing? On the way out we stood on the metal balcony at the end of the hotel part and watched people wandering into containers or rooms, miss the secret passages, and walk out. What did they make of it? What did I make of it? I loved it.

Simply Botiful runs until Mar 18 2007, at the Hauser & Wirth Coppermill, 92-108 Cheshire St, London, E2 6EH.
Coppermill website. with 57 photos of the exhibit
Youtube video taken by a visitor in the Mammoth marquee, giving a great idea of the claustraphobic nature of the tunnels. Luckily when we were there, we only had two other people to wait for (you can only go down the freezer in pairs).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006



Life tends to be full of little disappointments, until we get to the unavoidable big one at the end, of course. It's what separates us from the animals. Dogs might look at you if their bowl is underfilled, but they get over it (until next feeding time). Wildebeest might look annoyed on their long, boring, dusty migrations - but they have a brain the size of a pickled onion and don't know any better. If they did, they wouldn't keep getting caught out by crocodiles at muddy waterholes. But seeing as we're at the top of the global foodchain (with the occasional grisly exception), we have to put up with traffic jams, defrosting freezers, and paying £21 for a ticket to travel hundreds of miles to watch your football team play appallingly against a side bottom of the league before conceding a stupid goal with literally seconds left before the end of injury time. And soforth. Here, to sum up one of these disappointments, is a story.

In 1994 myself and six of my closest friends had just graduated from our local college, with varying degrees of success, and decided the only way to celebrate was to get on a coach at Preston Bus Station bound for sunnier climes. For a shade over a hundred quid we somehow managed to wangle two weeks in a static caravan on the Costa Brava. Possibly the 31hr bus trip had something to do with the incredible cheapness. I can't remember the tour company (pronounced two-er, of course) we used, but it was a Cosmos-esque alternative with a similarly tacky name 'Astro' or 'Spectral', or something. We all piled onboard and wondered what to expect, as the driver swung out of Europe's Longest Bus Station and into the rain.

The aim of this jolly trip was of course to indulge in the teenage pastimes of drinking, girls, and alfresco vomiting - but first we had the journey to negotiate. This was where the disappointment came in (there is some relevance to this story). It wasn't the incredibly long journey - we were 17 so quite happy to sit there and look at Penny, the perky Australian rep ("nice to look at, not nice to listen to" was the opinion of one of my friends). The crushing blow came as we rolled into France. Now don't get me wrong, I love France - I've probably been at least half a dozen times - but remember crucially we were onboard a budget express coach of cheapo English tourists. No charming Breton villages, or cosy Parisian cafes awaited us. We were bussed into Bully-les-Mines, and the fun started.

Bully-les-Mines is a small town in the Pas-de-Calais département of Northern France, about 20 miles west of the mining city of Lens (I didn't just copy that from Wikipedia, honest). It was apparently the routine lunch stop used by this company, as obviously they could just arrive at a pre-booked restaurant and stay there for an allotted time before continuing the long trip south. The local restauranter would pay the company for this service to ensure they kept the rosbifs fed, and everybody would be happy. Or not, as it turned out. We had no inkling, as we were just pleased to be in a foreign country and on holiday. The bus stopped in the quiet town square, and Penny announced over the microphone that the owner of a nearby restaurant would be coming on board to tell us the dining options.

Tap...tap...tap went the mic. "'allo? You got me? Allo! This is Johnny. How are you?". Nobody answered. "Good! A we'come to Bully les Mines. Today we have the lunch for you. You have cheeken with the chips, or beef with the vegetables, including the green bean." Those were his exact words. We shuffled off the bus, keen to kick-start our break with some proper French food and enjoy a bit of Gallic hospitality. Sadly, we got nothing of the sort. Chez Johnny was a poky little place with rickety wooden tables and paper tablecloths. The heavily facial-haired chefs regarded us with suspicion through the kitchen serving hatch as the waitress wandered over to find out which of the two options we wanted, before haughtily scribbling it directly on the tablecloth.

French food is widely regarded as a wonderful institution, and I've had some stunning meals there since. But what we had on that day was a culinary atrocity. I went for the beef, and when the chicken came out I thought I'd dodged a bullet. But then my choice appeared, and chewing bullets was a good description of what it was like. It was some of the worst food I've ever eaten. We choked it down as quickly as possible, paid our Francs, and scarpered. Still having half an hour before the coach left, we wandered around the town centre looking for a boulangerie or something where we could buy something edible. But the entire town was closed. This was a weekday lunchtime, and nothing was open. The local hypermarché was fermé, and there was not a soul we could try our broken school French on to ask. The only thing we found that would take our money was a 'preservatif' machine in the street.

So that was the crushing disappointment of the start of our holiday. We got over it, though. The coach stopped at a service station near St Etienne and we loaded up with chocolate and Ruffles chips, which you can't buy in the UK, for some reason. Once we staggered off after the 31hrs had elapsed we had a typically boorish holiday (the details of which I can't divulge, of course). On the way back the coach - again with Penny on board - stopped at Bully-les-Mines, but we had the knowledge of what was to come. A different group of co-busees listened to Johnny before traipsing off to his horrible diner, but we nipped off when his back was turned and went straight for the hypermarché, which thankfully was still open. This is why humans have become the most successful species - we can adjust to disappointment and alter our behaviour accordingly. Mostly, that is. I'll probably go back to another Blackburn game, for one thing. But I'm not going back to Chez Johnny. And I never did get my green bean.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Horniman Highlights

He's behind you...!

Another day, another museum. Perfect weather for it, as the capital was shrouded in dark, low clouds with a blustery wind ripping through the trees. Something indoors was called for, and the perfect answer was a trip to a little-known institution called the Horniman Museum, in the Forest Hill district of the city. Named after a Victorian tea magnate and Cornish MP, Frederick Horniman, it opened initially in 1901 as a place to store his many curios collected on foreign jaunts - but a complete modern redesign in 2002 means it would be unrecognisable if he suddenly re-appeared and asked to look round it. Sleek white galleries are split over four levels, each with a different theme (musical instruments, Native American culture, a small aquarium).

It was all interesting, albeit with a confusing layout and minimal signposting - stark featureless corridors and staircases suddenly threw you out at a display of Mummies, or a tank of jellyfish, or something. I kept passing groups of people with bemused expressions on their faces. It was whilst negotiating the passageways of the Horniman that I came up with the idea of writing about why I like Natural History museums so much. I can probably sum it up with a series of 'must-haves' that truly mark out the great NHM's of the world. Next time you find yourself at one of these establishments, see how it measures up against the list of ideal features...

Things in glass cases
The bread and butter of NHM's, musty moth-eaten stuffed animals in contorted poses are always popular. Large creatures like bears, walruses and so forth look immense at close quarters, and can be positioned in 'life-like' dioramas - a stiffly taxidermied cat poised to leap on a glassy-eyed rabbit, for example. Score extra points for yellowing fur, visible stitching.

Dinosaurs are the other ever-present feature, but only the major museums have the big skeletons - like London's famous main hall Diplodocus or New York's giant T Rex. Look for real bones rather than dark plaster copies (which sadly the Diplodocus is). Every dinosaur display will also contain the following - a set of fossilised footprints, a model of a nest with Triceratops babies emerging from eggs, a primitive bird fossil looking like a crow flattened with a mallet. Many will also have a series of human/chimpy skeletons showing our evolution, and award bonus points (at your own discretion) for a human skeleton in a bizarre pose (I remember one riding a bike, and another on a skeletal horse).

Rocks and Minerals
This section will be as far away from the doors as possible - the dinosaurs are always the first thing inside the main entrance - which is definate proof that excitement decreases the further inside the NHM you go. The Royal Museum in Edinburgh has minerals on the fourth floor, and the Australian Museum in Sydney had room after room of minerals, rocks and gemstones with nobody in them. The nametags always try and make them sound exciting - "Spangletite deposit found by local farmer Bill Bumble after pulling prize-winning heifer from a bog with his tractor", but at the end of the day, they are just rocks.

Unused outdoor section
Museums are there for rainy days - when it's nice and warm, people will be doing other things. So why NHM's insist on creating outdoor areas of native trees and so-on, I have never understood. It's somewhere for the schoolkids to drop their litter, I guess. There will be donated benches "To the memory of Mrs Ada Tinkle, who loved this museum", some pathetic-looking tropical plants/cacti completely out of their natural enviroment, a water feature, and sculptures. Add extra points for pointlessly-odd looking statues, bonus points if they are phallic.

One crazy fact that can't be true
This involves reading the displays, I know, but every NHM will have something that you look at and think is complete b*llocks. I think they put these in deliberately. One of the stuffed polar bears will have a camera instead of an eye and museum operatives are checking to see who's really paying attention. At the Horniman I found out that the UK has over 5000 species of parasitic wasps, most (conveniently) smaller than a thumbnail. One survey of a normal suburban back garden in Leicester apparently found 600 different types. In one garden? And yet the only wasp anyone ever sees is the basic black and yellow picnic terror that causes grown men to run screaming (you know who you are). Where are the other 4999 types?

Just to show it's not only dead things you can have in NHM's, most will also have a token section of various insects, lizards and spiders. Good ones, like the O. Orkin Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian NHM in Washington DC, have all kinds of bugs and creepy-crawlies - but even the most basic will have a couple of bored looking tarantulas hiding under rocks inside sweaty tanks, probably with greasy hand prints on the glass.

Always a favourite, as I described in my post about the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Tuataras are lizards that aren't. Belonging to an ancient evolutionary dead end of legged snakes, they look identical to lizards. It's this kind of obscure but (to some people) interesting thing that makes you appreciate the finer points of evolution and ecology. Or if not, it's cheap to get hold of a stuffed lizard. I've seen Tuataras at the NHM's in London, Washington, Dublin, Paris, Vienna, and at Te Papa in Wellington, New Zealand (the only country they naturally inhabit).

Giant Spider Crab
The king of all museum exhibits, a large crab glued to a board is for me diagnostic of a great NHM. Used to scare small children and indicate immediately how wacky things that live in the sea can be, it's another cheap-but-visually-striking display. Any NHM with one of these - and of course the bigger the better - is really a cut above the rest.

Horniman Museum website
Te Papa, Wellington
Natural History Museum, London
Natural History Museum, Vienna
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC

Saturday, December 02, 2006

British Museum

The British Museum has over 7 million objects from around the world, covering all aspects of human history. It's almost impossible to see them in a single day, but I gave it my best shot over several hours. First opened in 1759, the enormous columned frontage opens into a newly-completed (2000) atrium with a large tessellated glass roof that lets the light glow through. The first exhibit you come across is this, the Rosetta Stone. Discovered by the French in 1799, the tabletop-sized rock was seized by the British during the Napoleonic campaigns in North Africa and spirited back to London. It is one of the most important archaeological finds in history, as it shows two ancient Egyptian languages translated into Greek. It took a further 25yrs for it to be deciphered, but when completed scholars had a way of reading hieroglyphics for the first time. This drawing shows the three clear text groupings. In 2003, the Egyptians asked for it back - but the British Museum refused, and sent them a copy.

Right at the back of the Americas wing is this, the mask of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca. He was seriously omnipotent - he was the "god of night and all material things, god of the north, lord of the world, god of robbers, spirit of darkness, god of discord and deceit, god of beauty and war, and lord of heroes and lovely girls." His main weapon was a magic mirror, Itlachiayaque, that destroyed his enemies by giving off smoke. He was the rival of the other great Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl. Between them, these twin gods made the world, although in so doing Tezcatlipoca lost his foot - used as bait to attract the monstress of the earth, Cipactli. Falling for the trick, the twins twisted her body into land for their new world, and ever since Tezcatlipoca is depcited with only one leg. This mask is made from a human skull, covered in jade and polished obsidian.

'The Parthenon Sculptures in London' are usually known as the Elgin Marbles, and are the most controversial of all the British Museum's exhibits. Acquired from the Athens ruin in 1806 by the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, they are a symbol of Western 'collecting' of sacred foreign sites, and the disputes which arise. The Greek government has repeatedly demanded the return of the sculptures, and are currently constructing a new Acropolis Museum to house them. The British argue that removing the friezes saved them, and a leaflet reveals their position, which seems to be roughly 'The Greeks allowed the building to be ruined and can't be trusted with them' (although it doesn't say that in as many words). The Parthenon was actually ruined in 1687 when used as a gunpowder store, an explosion ripping off many of the statuary, so they may have a point. I'm not sure about some of the language they use in their argument, however - "The division of sculptures between...Athens and London allows different and complementary stories to the told about them."

The statues and friezes themselves are pretty impressive, although so badly damaged by time and explosives that it's hard to get a clear picture of what they would have been like in their heyday. The Museum tries though, there are diagrams, charts and models telling the visitor the position of the marbles, and what it all means. I also learned a new word - Metope - a 'rectangular slab placed above the architrave of a Doric temple' (I'm pretending that I know what an architrave and Doric temple are). Of the four sides of the Parthenon, the British Museum has just one - the South side, which depicts rather amusingly drunken fighting at a wedding. When Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, married Hippodamia the invited Centaurs became drunk and tried to carry off the Lapith women. Pirithous's best friend was Theseus, so if he was best man, presumably he had to break up the scuffling and get the DJ to quickly play something everyone could dance to.

Of course, it's not just large statues, mummies and other big weighty objects. The museum has extensive collections of personal objects from around the world, from throughout history. Arranged by historical period, and then by item type, you can quickly find something of interest. Here your author is reflected in an Etruscan bronze hand mirror from 250BC. The highly polished surface is slightly convex, allowing the whole head to be seen. It was quite spooky to imagine a haughty noblewoman looking at her reflection in this very mirror, 2300 years ago.

This cheerful looking fellow could be a terracotta Santa Claus, but is actually a haniwa clay figure from 500AD Japan, the Kofun period of artistic military society. Large numbers of these were arranged on top of ruler's mounded tombs, specially made to depict events from the dead persons life. Their features were simplified and exaggerated to be visible from a respectful distance. I like the idea of the best parts of your life reduced to clay statues and arranged on your grave - a kind of 'This is Your Life' puppet show. Easier for ancient monarchs - "This statue depicts the king's glorious coronation", harder for modern people - "This clay figurine is believed to represent when Dave won £50 on a scratchcard"

British Museum website
British Museum Parthenon debate
Hellenic Ministry of Culture
The Acropolis Restoration Project