Friday, 13 January 2017

The Museum of Methodism

49 City Road
London EC1Y 1AU

Thursday 12 January 2017

If we are honest, Linda and I were not expecting much from this visit, but we were wrong: we had a fascinating  and informative time, and saw some remarkable buildings and objects.

The first pleasant surprise is to step off the horrible City Road into the calm courtyard of this headquarters of the Methodist movement.  We started in the Museum, with a brief film about the life and work of John Wesley, which is supported by a wall time line. The key points of Wesley's life are outlined, beginning with his birth in Lincolnshire (one of 19 children) in 1703, and his miraculous rescue from the fire which destroyed the Epworth Rectory, convincing his mother (and later himself) that he was a 'brand plucked from the burning' (Zechariah 3 i-ii) and chosen to serve God.  His father's patron, the Duke of Buckingham, ensured that he was educated, first at the London Charterhouse and then at Oxford, and he was ordained into the Church of England. 'Methodist' was the derisory nickname given to him and his friends of the 'Holy Club' by their fellow students, but they were happy to live their lives in a methodical way and did not object. 

The key moment in his life was probably his evangelical conversion in 1738 when, as he said, 'I felt my heart strangely warmed' and became convinced emotionally as well as intellectually of the truth of his faith. The very next year, he bought the derelict cannon foundry on the City Road, and set up a chapel, school, and dispensary and his own home: effectively a community centre. Not that he spent much time there: over the next 50 years, he travelled about 250,000 miles, preaching to the poor. 

At this stage, we were offered a tour of Wesley's House, which can only be visited in the company of one of the knowledgeable people who staff the Museum, so off we went. It is a handsome house, built with money from Methodist congregations in the 1770s. Wesley was based here from 1779 to his death in 1791. We started in the basement, where there was very little light, but our guide's torch showed us some relics of the man himself and his innumerable journeys on horseback. His shoes (small feet, but then he was not very tall) his spurs, his travelling writing desk and some of his clothes are all on display in the house. So is his rattle from when he was a baby. We were also amazed by an 'exercise horse' on which one sits and bounces up and down.  The travelling season went from March to September, so keeping the muscles in trim over the winter was important.

 On the ground floor were two rooms with opportunities for entertaining his many visitors, and some fine furniture, including a lovely corner cupboard.  Upstairs again was his study, with a fine view of the Dissenters' cemetery opposite, where his mother Susannah is buried.

His ideas on medicine were often strange, and we saw his machine for using static electricity for dealing with anything from fevers to rheumatism and hair loss.  He believed that tea was an evil drink, despite the fact that the great Josiah Wedgwood had made him a personalised and magnificent teapot, which is on display in the Museum.

We also saw an extraordinary cockfighting chair (close up of a similar one here) given him by a convert and useful as a work chair for someone who spent so much time on horseback.  The handsome 1690s grandfather clock was rumoured to have come from Epworth, but it seems unlikely that such a clock would have survived the fire of 1710.

Next to his bedroom is his prayer-room.  This is known as 'the power house of Methodism'. He rose at 5.00 every morning and spent time with his bible. He called himself a 'one book man' but was in fact very widely read.  His successor as head of the Methodists destroyed a number of his secular books, including his Shakespeare, which is a pity, as he wrote comments in the books he was reading, and his take on some of Shakespeare would be interesting.  Upstairs again there was a spare room, for visiting preachers, or for his brother Charles.  It is a small room, but the bed will fold up into the wall to make more space.

After the house, we visited the original Foundery Chapel, with a neat little organ, and a few wooden pews, before going into the main, magnificent chapel. The pulpit, which is original, began life with three storeys, to enable the preacher to he heard in the galleries, but it now has a mere two! The altar rails were a gift from Margaret Thatcher, who was married here.  Her children were baptised in the font.

Then it was back to the Museum. where we saw a wide range of items about the life of Wesley and the history of his movement to the present day.  A bible, said to have survived the fire at Epworth, and certainly showing signs of having been singed, has pride of place, together with the pulpit from the original chapel.  We were not very excited by the many portraits of the heroes of Methodism, but we did enjoy commemorative ceramics and prints, as well as the display of modern reprints of some of Wesley's many publications, including his works on Abolition. The Museum also has some fine vinyl recordings of Methodist hymns.  Actually, whether one has any religion or none, most people are familiar with Hark the Herald, and Love Divine, so we all know something of Methodism.

There was a range of trowels from the laying of foundation stones, too.

We also enjoyed the displays of collecting boxes, ancient and modern. Wesley was unashamed about 'begging' for the needs of the poor, and to this day, the Methodist Movement funds charities for children and old people, at home and abroad. 
Ever since Wesley declared 'the world is my parish', this has been a worldwide movement.  The split form Anglicanism only occurred when Wesley ordained ministers to go abroad though he was not himself a bishop. So the museum has a section about the Caribbean, where Methodism arrived in the 1770s and is strong today, and around the world. There are almost two million Methodists in South Korea, for example.

Finally, we ventured into the historic gentlemen's toilets, among the first public flush loos in London, and were suitably impressed. (There are everyday toilets as well...)

Before we left, we ventured into the rain soaked garden to see the memorial to the founder and also to note the modern office block, the rent of which helps to support the whole complex

Monday, 9 January 2017

Science Museum (Part 2)

Science Museum
Exhibition Road
London SW7 2DD

Thursday January 4th 2017

This was our second outing to the three storey Science Museum, and we chose to visit the newly opened Mathematics Gallery, with time left over for one of the other general sections – or so we thought – not realising how absorbing this presentation was. I am sure most of the exhibits have been in the Museum’s collection for years but are newly showcased and captioned to make them both understandable and relevant to everyday life. Having said that I found myself with several photos of things I can’t remember so this may turn into a ‘Guess the Object’ quiz. I am not clear why the Gallery is also named the Winton Gallery as the money was donated by other names and the setting designed by Zaha Hadid where at least she was spared from having to provide a roof. The curvy shape  – her trademark – is to suggest the airflow round a plane in motion and means you can meander up one side and down the other. There is also a film of the equations ‘flowing’ round the wings and body on a screen suspended under the real plane, which they obviously wanted hung as a prime exhibit even though in many ways it is much less interesting than other less beautiful objects.

 The Gallery aims to demonstrate that counting/ calculation/ documentation/ statistics and maths are part of our daily lives and have been since man walked upright.

Counting is represented by a range of objects from the simple abacus through to several early models of comptometers (not a misprint). Industry, commerce and of course government all need to count – mainly money as it goes in and out. At its simplest level you count with beads, then small at first hand cranked machines , which calculate small sums leading to the first ‘pocket calculator’ in 1973. These were slightly larger than today’s mobile phone, which of course has the same functions tucked away as a very minor ‘app’. There is a substantial (made to last?) cash register – this looked tempting (I would have quite liked the opportunity to push down a few ‘keys’ and hear the  satisfying chink as the drawer opened) – you needed to be good at mental arithmetic as the operator not the machine worked out what change was needed.
Governments need (slightly) more sophisticated calculators to look at how money flows through the economy – we were rather taken with Bill Phillip's model, where a simple ‘dam’ system showed the beads ‘flowing’ either into savings or spending. 
The one here runs on ‘beads’ rather than water as presumably it was felt to be less risky.

A surprisingly   large chunk of the Maths display is given over to gambling (I suppose it is a big Industry, and it is certainly part of the High Street) as of course the point of much gambling is looking at ‘odds’. Apart from dealing with bookmakers there are also intricate Tote machines that calculate how much winnings, if any, you are owed. Betting on a horse or dog ‘with form’ or even on a Book Prize winner is one thing but many folk just bet on random numbers coming up – hence the display of dice and Guinevere , who was one of the early National Lottery number selectors.

If some of life’s natural mathematicians drift into the betting industry others surely head for Insurance, which of course also runs (very profitably) on risk, most of which has been calculated in advance. Nowadays in medical/life insurance very little is left to chance as endless questions and tests are examined before insurance is available. In order to arrive at a point where insurance is offered in any particular case there will have been statistics analysed to calculate the risks.

Scientists have been collecting medical statistics for longer than you might think. We hovered in front of a leather bound volume entitled ’ Degrees of Mortality’ by one Edmond Halley debating whether it was the same man who tracked the comet, and indeed it is. I for one find medical statistics rather more fascinating that occasional comet appearances but most websites stop short of giving him all round credit for his other scientific observations.

Another name we had met in a different context (and museum) was that of Florence Nightingale who introduced very novel ways of presenting the statistics of death amongst the sick and wounded of the Crimea using pioneering diagrams to demonstrate that far more men were dying of sickness rather than wounds or war. This to me seemed a far more significant achievement – the ability to demonstrate significant statistical facts in a pictorial manner – than walking the wards with a lamp!! The fact she went on to harangue those in power to get things improved completes the picture.

Nightingale and Halley were of course not the first people to describe medical conditions and doctors must always have guessed that certain things cause illness or death but it needs a good statistical presentation to convert a hypothesis into accepted facts. ‘Measuring People’ in Victorian times invested a lot of energy into Phrenology – the study of skull shapes was thought to predict personality and potential, but when looked at statistically this ‘science’ proved to be unreliable, to say the least. Tests of course were also produced to look at people’s intelligence, which have long been mired in controversy, and more recently tests tried to establish emotional intelligence and stability.

Turning away from mankind we have long tried to measure both the earth and the universe. We have yet to visit the Observatory at Greenwich but here there is a succinct if complex explanation of how early man managed to navigate – yes, using the sun, moon stars and some complex tables but the margins for error seem so enormous (cloudy skies, rocking ship disturbs your astrolabe, let alone human error) that it is amazing that any ship ever managed to arrive anywhere safely. If you add in the additional factor of tides which are seemingly random but do follow a pattern there is even more calculation to be done.      Recognising patterns as man did so long ago, is apparently the first sign of a complex machine’s ability.  Whilst on navigation there is a section on ship hulls and what shapes might do better. All those centuries of work on hull efficacy must have paid off when it came to aircraft design and as noted earlier the screen shows airflow (and the equations required to work it out) round a plane fuselage.

Getting back to earth, maths was needed to work out weights and measures and there are good displays of the evolution of ‘standard weights’ which of course we take for granted. Early scales and weights are one thing but the display which shows how standard measurements varied throughout the UK and the world (how do you do ‘fair trade’ without generally accepted measurements?) are astounding. Elizabeth I managed to standardize weights for England but it took till 1825 till Imperial (non metric) weights and measures were enshrined in law not just for trading purposes.    I think beer must have been regulated earlier or there would have been riots every night in drinking joints? Once of course you have legally set measurements you need an inspection process to maintain and enforce it.       

Just as fundamental to our daily lives as what we buy in the shops are the principles of architecture and engineering which underpin (literally) the whole built environment. My friend who was an engineer always said that architects would be nowhere without the engineers to calculate the stresses put on structures by both their foundations their heights and the materials used. We in the UK do not have to factor in making a building earthquake proof as some do. When you take into account all the variables and calculations needed it sometimes seems a miracle that anything above a metre stays upright! Let alone the added complexity of bridge building.  There is a brief nod to Vitruvius and the fact that symmetry and perspective are also required in order to make the finished edifice aesthetically pleasing – the example used here is the erstwhile Nat West Tower now Tower 42 which may or may not fulfil that part of the brief?

Today most calculations are done by a machine pretty quickly, but this exhibition really underlines and demonstrates that there were some really clever people who worked it all out in their heads and on paper log ago. We also take so much for granted and without maths we could not go about our daily lives of travel, commerce, health and leisure without the pioneers who made it possible

Some mystery exhibits.....

Monday, 19 December 2016

The National Gallery Part 3

--> Trafalgar Square WC2N 5D
Thursday 15 December
Linda and I naively thought that a third visit might mean that we had seen all the rooms, but of course we were wrong, and after an immersion in 17th century art, particularly Dutch and Flemish, we felt we needed to call it a day.  We do own an amazing number of remarkable pictures (by 'we', I mean the nation, not Linda and me, obviously)

So we set off from the Sainsbury Wing, where we had met, and crossed to the older part of the building which, paradoxically, contains the more modern works, and started in Room 16, which contains two lovely Turners and a couple of Claudes as well.  

As so often, it occurred to us that we could go to Tate Brit any day of the week, and wallow in Turners, but the trouble with living in a city is that we leave its treasures to visitors.

We then moved into the Dutch galleries, which we enjoyed even more.  A painting by Ter Borch showed a soldier dictating a long letter, presumably to his girl, while an officer stands by looking bored, and a Netscher depicted a young girl studiously learning to read while a small boy messes about on the floor: stereotyping which students of modern education will recognise.  

Then there were a couple of wonderful de Hoochs.  If anything were to turn me to a life of crime, it would be my longing to possess a de Hooch. We were pleased to see a Fabritius, having read that book The Goldfinch, and of course the lovely Vermeers.

More action packed were the Art Gallery, and an Avercamp ice scene, as well as the Elder Breughel's depiction of the Three Kings visiting the infant Christ.  There were quite a few of the Breughels that seem to have been reproduced by his son and the studio from templates left by the Elder.

We slipped fairly rapidly through a room full of vases of flowers, which, Linda pointed out, reflected this golden age for the Dutch United Provinces:  the porcelain of the Far East filled with tulips which were the western craze of the moment. Several of the vases had snail and other bugs on them, presumably to denote mortality.

We then came to a room which had a Poussin (Moses being found) as well as some other French paintings, including Le Sueur and Philippe de Champaigne, whose pictures of Cardinal Richelieu are interesting.

The next room contains a number of pleasant surprises, including a charming Rubens of Susanne Lunden with all her clothes on and a pretty straw hat.  Linda and I agree that we do not enjoy the more normal Rubens style, of ladies who could do with some Pilates classes to firm them up a bit.

We also liked the Jacob van Oost portrait of a thoughtful eleven year old boy.  The plain wash background seemed to us rather modern, a bit like Annigoni's 1956 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

Van Dyck's portrait of Cornelius van Geest was striking, and then we moved into a Spanish Room, including a lot of works by Murillo, who was clearly much to the taste of British Collectors in the 18th century. 

This room also contains a number of splendid works by Velasquez, including the so-called Rokeby Venus, famous for being slashed by the suffragette, Mary Richardson, in protest at the arrest of Mrs Pankhurst.  We could not see the marks of the knife, which we gather fell between her shoulder blades.

Room 24 is a place to linger, as it has a number of remarkable Rembrandts, including Belshazzar's Feast and a lovely picture of a woman, paddling in a stream.  Our photographs went rather blurry, so there are links to the pictures instead.  The Woman Taken in Adultery was also striking; all those nominally religious people who condemn others for sinning could do with checking out what Jesus said in the event depicted by Rembrandt.  There were several portraits of old people and indeed of the artist himself.

Finally we came to Room 32, which is a huge gallery full of Italian paintings, including several by unknown artists,  Many were of the Virgin and Child and other New Testament themes, but Linda was particularly taken by a Salvator Rosa painting of 'Philosophy'. Well, she has been watching Poldark, so this darkly romantic figure was a good one to finish on.

We had seen many more wonderful works than I have mentioned here;  we really appreciated the captioning, which told the story or explained the reference points of each work. We shall be back;  but we shall also remember that the 17th century galleries would be a great place to pass an hour or so any day of the week.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Brent Museum

Willesden Library Centre,
95 High Rd,
London NW10 2SF
Thursday December 8   2016      

The one thing this Museum lacked was a map showing us the boundaries that Brent has – formed like all the other London Boroughs in 1965 it brought together bits of the capital close to Kensington and Chelsea and Camden but also Harrow and Barnet.   At one point it must have looked like leftover corners from its neighbours but surely it has developed its own character, and as this Museum  so clearly shows, its own history and memories.

The Willesden Green library is very striking, taking up a substantial corner site on the High Road, which is used by a significant number of bus routes in spite of its narrowness, so we were not on unfamiliar territory. Inside the library there is light and space and quiet, though there was a storytelling session taking place in the ground floor children’s section. A sweeping staircase takes you to the Adult Library on the First Floor and (though we had to ask) the Archives and Museum at the top. The broad and safety conscious-bannisters form small display cases where memorabilia belonging to Willesden worthies or former craftsmen are displayed but the purpose-built museum follows a more usual chronological approach.        
There is an interactive display about the River Brent which sadly was not working: buses apart this is one of the borough’s features we have also followed as it forms a significant section of the Capital Ring Walk and in fact one of the most beautiful. We were told that the name comes from a Celtic goddess named Brigantia – she who eventually settled into being Britannia.   If there were Roman and Saxon remains we somehow missed them, as the focus was on following the development of the area from one of largely agricultural and grazing lands to industry and commerce.

Watling Street was a major Roman Road now the thoroughfare through Kilburn, and the museum shows how important the Kilburn Priory was as a place of pilgrimage.  Priory apart the land was productive for farming of all sorts, though as urbanisation increased dairy farming became more important. We did not note any key buildings or events from Tudor times. St  Andrew’s In Kingsbury is considered to be the oldest building in Brent and even then you would have to ‘pick out’ the original bits from successive restorations – the picture here is from a walk and not the Museum…
There are artefacts from several small local dairies, who sometimes delivered up to three times daily, but by the 19th century a Mr Titus Barham, in the way of entrepreneurs, founded the Express Dairies, on the back of which he became very rich. (When I was in Primary School in NW London (and this is going back 60 years) the playground factions divided pretty much between rival football clubs Spurs or Arsenal but just below was whether you had your milk delivered by the United Dairies (RED livery) or the Express Dairies (BLUE) (though a few playground oddballs went with the Co-op in GREEN) which indicates how powerful these brands became – but like many their day came and went.This article maintains Titus Barham was the making of modern Brent !

Other major manufacturers included a brickworks large enough to make an impact on the local environment with rows of houses – some large and imposing but also many for the ‘incoming’ railway workers; this mainly round the Kilburn area. While the menfolk were engaged in industry the museum credits women with having laundry jobs, later working for drapers and running haberdashery shops, with the appropriate ‘goods for sale’ on display. Following the First World War house building expanded prolifically with the spread of ‘Metroland’ – as the Museum shows there was no shortage of railway lines through the area and housing followed stations. Metroland was a term coined by the promoters of the Metropolitan Railway and certainly spread out from the parts of Brent such as Neasden, Sudbury and Wembley before heading into ‘the Shires’.
Naturally all these modest house owners needed to be fed and by the Twenties there was a proliferation of factories – most of them still household names.  

By the Twenties and Thirties the canal road and rail connections round park Royal were so good that many different manufacturers set up there: McVities originating from Scotland as you might expect have long (since 1902) and continuing links with the Harlesden end of Brent and for any biscuit lover the time-line is a must. If savoury is more your line Heinz and Smith’s Crisps were here too. Also the famous architect Giles Gilbert Scott built a brewery for  Guinness, which they only vacated in 2005. Park Royal is still a busy Trading Estate encompassing both large brand names and smaller outlets – we criss-crossed it many times on our bus journeys as it continues to offer employment.

The expansion of industry and commerce is indivisible from the history of immigration as the plentiful work available attracted and employed successive waves of incomers. Brent is one of the most diverse boroughs in London and also probably still has the largest number of Irish families, most of whom arrived originally to fill labouring jobs. During the Fifties and Sixties the Caribbean families came in significant numbers alongside those from Gujarat. When the British passport holding Indians of East Africa were no longer welcome there they came over from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. These communities are now well settled and more recent arrivals mirror those of the rest of London’s residents and workforce. The Irish left their mark on the Kilburn/Cricklewood axis with the Galtymore Ballroom and large convivial Irish pubs. In another part of the borough closer to Wembley is the stand out structure of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, described by Wikipedia as ‘Europe’s first traditional Hindu stone temple’. The cases hold exhibits reflecting all these cultures. 

Perhaps the authorities had a sense of all this diversity or perhaps it was prescient when they decided to hold the  Empire Games in Wembley ( and nearby White City )  in 1934. Brent’s legacy was of course Wembley Stadium, both the original and the 2007-opened buildings being instantly recognisable. Both old and new stadiums have hosted some memorable events including the original Live Aid and even better attended the Pope’s Visit.

All this industry and development is not to say that neither World war had an impact on Brent. There are memorials to a local man winning a VC in the first World War, and rather touchingly a librarian from this very resource who also died and has his own plaque. Though not as heavily bombed as South London, Brent suffered quite badly because of the industry, which did also include the Handley Page works at Roe Green and de Havilland in Cricklewood. This did not stop the local folk raising cash to buy a Spitfire plane, which went to a Polish Squadron; this was obviously a national effort as we had seen similar contributions to ships at both Tottenham and Waltham Forest borough archives.

Inevitably where there was war damage those large high rise estates such as at Stonebridge replaced the much needed housing and in turn became unpopular.

The Archive has a generous space set aside at the end for special exhibitions and a BBC trailer had alerted us to this one: The Grunwick Strike. This was extremely well documented partly due to the fact that Special Branch had released their papers from this era having played a significant if covert role.(They kept a list of every single poster and placard, which must have helped the exhibition curators!)

Grunwick was a photo processing plant – in the era before every phone became a digital camera people used to post their holiday snaps to be processed and about a week later a pack of photos arrived back by post. Much of the workforce was female and at that women of South Asian heritage who were ‘kept in their place’ by all possible means of bullying and degrading working practices. When an enterprising and educated worker called Jayaben Desai (originally from Tanzania) talked about Union involvement attempts were made to dismiss anyone who joined her.  The epigram and the theme for the whole exhibition was ‘We are Lions’ from her riposte to management:
“What you are running here is not a factory it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions, who can bite your head off. We are the lions Mr Manager. “

The strike ran for two years and is immaculately documented with a detailed time line on the floor and corresponding panels for each key stage of success and defeat. It is seen as particularly significant in (trade union) history as, like the strike at Dagenham, it involved low paid women and workers from an ethnic minority. Their treatment at work was degrading – being followed to the toilets etc. The strike also featured significant police involvement which seems staggering when you look at these petite Asian women on the frontline – though there were 550 arrests no strikers were involved in violence against the police and it soured community/police relations for some time. The subsequent government must have taken notes and used even more extreme tactics and in the end legislation to curb unions. All these workers wanted was:
1)     The right to belong to a union.
2)     The right to have the union recognised.
3)     The right not to be dismissed for joining a union.

This special exhibition – and I have really compressed the amount of information on display – made a stirring end to our visit to the Brent Archives and Museum so we took one last look over the balcony where  Brent worthies and celebrities have little showcases (Twiggy anyone?) (Bob Marley passing through?) and made our way down and out.