Friday, 20 May 2016

The City Centre

80 Basinghall Street
London EC2V 5AR
Friday May 20 2016

There was some debate as to whether this was really a ‘museum’ but as an exhibition with permanent status and public access  (albeit limited to Fridays and Saturdays) it would seem to fit our rather loose criteria. Anyway it is very similar to the Building Centre, which we visited in June 2015, with less promoted products.

We met at Moorgate Station and plumped for one of its many exits – the area is virtually unrecognisable due to the amount of construction work both overground and underground – the Elizabeth Line gets its tentacles everywhere though not destined to call at Moorgate. After some dithering – as we often do when confronted with the reality of maps – we found ourselves close to Basinghall Street, effectively round the back of the Guildhall, so we approached Reception staffed by 4 people (none of them in high heels) and asked where we could find the City Exhibition with the ‘scale model’. ‘O that’s not open to the public’ they said; ‘yes it is’ we said, ‘on Fridays from 10.00.’ ‘Well we don’t  know anything about that – it must be the marketing centre,’ trying to dismiss us. So where’s that then – round the corner they waved us off and out. As we enter the ‘Square Mile’ (City of London) so rarely nowadays we forget how money speaks and oozes from every pore of every building, and that we don’t quite fit in…

Having said that, once we rounded the corner we did indeed find the City Centre (neat name) which was previously the marketing suite. In some senses it is still a marketing tool in that it promotes different aspects of the City Corporation. The scale model and the photos depicting four facets of the City could amount to promotional material – each wall holds a series of photos relating to
·         The Green City – there are more corners of garden and planting then you might think and even a map is offered so you can follow a Garden Trail. The Postmen's Park is ne of our favourites. 
·         The Cultural City: For the most part his showcases the open air art works – street art – that hug the ground round the various new towers included in
·         The New City: here there is no shortage of examples to be found as architects aim for immortality by building ever higher, or more recently ever curvier.
Lastly, or should it be firstly, comes
·         The Historic City: Not quite as much of it as there might be given the Blitz, and more recent rebuilding, but essentially this shows us the ‘star’ buildings of the City – St Paul’s of course, several old churches (many have been left in ruins which make for rather picturesque settings for the gardens – see above) and the civic spots of Guildhall, Mansion House , the Bank of England and numerous Guild centres. Roman bits lurk everywhere but most accessible by the Museum of London. 
Technically the Tower is in Tower Hamlets and not the City but creeps into the model..

 (The City Centre  lies very close to the HQ for the Armourers – Jo and I remembered when they used to be ‘Armourers & Braziers’ but thought they may have dropped their other half title so as not to be confused with certain items of lingerie.) 

Back to today – the main attraction is of course the very excellent scale model of the City of London which does extend beyond its 1 Square Mile boundaries especially to the south as it includes the Thames – and even the inappropriately named City Hall, now with its new incumbent Sadiq Khan.
We had great fun spotting or more often failing to spot different buildings as none of them  or the streets are labelled – the ‘key’ buildings – presumably those of architectural merit – are detailed while others are merely to scale blocked in white or grey. It is impressively up to date and includes the about to be opened extension to Tate-Modern  ( again not the City but Southwark) . Some buildings are so ‘overstated’ that they jar (there you have architects Jo would say) others blend together well, but overall the skyscrapers lack the cohesion of Manhattan.

Jo took a picture of London bridge and the Shard so that I could do a ’little rant’: London Bridge is gradually transforming itself to facilitate more cross London trains to run but in the interim it is not possible to change trains to move onto Waterloo or Charing Cross – this has had a huge impact on the Overground /Jubilee line interchange at Canada Water and with the road traffic slowed round Elephant while roundabouts are eradicated and cycle lanes fenced off the combination results in South East London being even more inaccessible – we were promised a fully functioning London Bridge in 2016 which now seems to have slipped to 2017. None of this is of course visible on the model where everything looks pristine and traffic free…

The Gallery would be an ideal drop-in for city workers – it’s a quiet oasis and more intimate space in what is the big corporate world and worth a visit for anyone interested in London’s growth and development. 

PS Even the toilets have pinstripes...

Sunday, 15 May 2016

British Museum (Visit 1)

Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG

Thursday May 12th 2016

In many ways we had been avoiding the British  Museum (BM) – not because we did not enjoy it, not because we did not think that the late Director Sir Neil McGregor was admirable in all sorts of ways  and had made the museum even more attractive, but because the ‘idea of it’ seemed so overwhelming. On today’s count the museum has approximately 99 galleries (there are some As and Bs) spread over 5 floors and while this shows on their map I think it’s probably an underestimate.
So it’s a bit at a time until we get bored, but it will certainly take us till the end of the Project. 
Today we started with Africa, not because we are being alphabetical or anything organised like that, but because it’s on the lower ground floor near the back entrance and we wanted something (comparatively) crowd-free. To say we were alone would be a lie but there was plenty of peace and quiet to enjoy this very well curated collection of both historic and present day cultural artefacts. The starting point is here you can find  modern artists ‘ responses to more traditional art forms – masks, pots, sculptures etc – and samples from the more historic collection alongside short film clips showing how the craftsmen use their materials.

Mozambique, we learned has about 40 languages so there was a mural called Mother Tongue, and then a very modern response to the traditional woven Kente Cloth  made of recycled bottle tops.

There are many artefacts which are universal – textiles, pots and sadly weaponry; there are also sections for religious and ritual occasions, and I suspect this will be the pattern for the remaining 98 galleries. When I tell you that this particular gallery was larger than the whole of Barnet Museum you can imagine how daunted one might feel.   

In the ‘Masquerade’ section are a range of masks and head dresses, some ceremonial used to ward off evil spirits , or perhaps give you the courage to face your enemy be it man or hippo (’otobo’ we learnt, and one of Africa’s largest animal killers, not counting malaria). These are heavy and complex constructions and not the kind of thing you would wear down to the market.

Back to the textiles where there was a range of both historical and more modern kente cloths. Kente means basket, which makes sense when you look at the woven patterns.  Also on display was hand stamped Kanga cloth which originated when six hankies (len̹co In Portuguese) are sewn together – the printing process allows for a degree of political propaganda along the way…
As we learnt from the Indian textiles and what is of course obvious is that the textiles (as later the pots) depend on locally available materials so it is only in coastal/mountain North Africa  that you find wool used. Other cloths include raffia and some imported fabrics.

One of the most splendid ( and possibly controversial)  sections of this particular gallery is the display of Benin Bronzes and included is a short film explaining the processes used, pretty much unchanged, over the last four centuries. The intricacy and humour of the plaques once used to decorate the palace exterior are one of the prize exhibits at the BM 
And rightly so – you can linger here gazing at the different expressions of the people immortalized in bronze.   

Wood carving is also well represented but of course less likely to survive than bronze, so again there are modern examples to show that the skills still flourish.

After these manifestations of power and prestige from the palace walls it is no surprise to see there is a section on weaponry, whose manufacture must combine functionality with good design. Examples range from earlier simple shields to a range of lethal looking throwing knives. Mozambique lived with civil war for over 20 years (1972-1997) so once peace was established there was clearly an arms amnesty and the weapons collected fashioned into a ‘tree of life’ or peace – it is both intriguing and moving and quite rightly has toured the continent before coming to rest at the BM.

A more peaceful conclusion to the gallery was the magnificent range of pots showing the variety of colours, skills and techniques available from the various African countries, all of which were that perfection combination of utility and beauty. 

Having spent a good hour downstairs we thought we wanted a real contrast – the current paying exhibition is about Sicily but up on the fifth floor there was a small exhibition of Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome, many of  which he had bequeathed to the BM. Towne was born in Middlesex but moved to Exeter where he remained for the rest of his life  he started as a coach painter but then started using water colours and undertook a protracted trip to Rome to record the ancient city and sell his pictures and copies to the many travellers who went on the ‘Grand Tour’. There are numerous examples of the sights of Rome which are somewhere between architectural drawings – accurate and spare but with trees – and landscapes that owe more to the imagination than real life. The results were never good enough to win him a place at the Royal academy (he was rejected 11 times and seen as distinctly ‘provincial’) but the good folk of Exeter bought enough to earn him a  reasonable living. Interestingly he did not become regarded again until the Thirties where his ‘spare’ style was seen as Modernist, exactly why his Victorian contemporaries had found his work too plain.

We were not particularly excited by these which are well displayed – under glass but sloping so you can get really close – and well captioned but nevertheless bland,  lacking the drama and individuality of other similar works. 

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Sherlock Holmes Museum

221B Baker St 

Thursday 5 May 2016
This was rather a new experience for Linda and me.  We have, of course, been to tourist hotspots before, but here we had a really artificial experience.  We started with the not-English-Heritage blue plaque, and then moved on to the not-Policeman who guards the door: yes, we were in the realms of fiction, and the home of the 'man who never lived and will never die', as the Museum of London named him.

Linda had been a bit tentative, claiming not to have read the stories since she was 11, but we paid our (quite serious) entrance fee and went in. The first pleasure was the loo in the lower ground floor, a period piece with instructions about how to deal with an overhead cistern, wooden seat and a charming towel rail.

You go next door to enter the house itself, and then go into Holmes' bedroom. We thought the contraption by the fire might be for airing his shirts. Most of the walls here, as throughout the house are hung with period prints and etchings of a Victorian kind: narratives, domestic scenes and sweet children. I suppose Mrs Hudson would have felt them appropriate for whatever lodgers she had.The study/sitting room next door displayed the pipes, the chemical apparatus and several reference books of the kind that Holmes referred to when researching his cases.

We also liked the post and newspapers rack on the wall.  

We went upstairs, to find Billy, the messenger boy, waiting to be sent on an errand, and Dr Watson's room. Here was displayed his stethoscope. As Linda said, he did not appear to do much work in his general practice, since he always had time to rush off when Holmes needed his help.

All the rooms had display cases with artefacts and souvenirs from the various cases:  the mummified 'savage' of Wisteria Lodge, the Cardboard Box in which Miss Susan Cushing found two severed human ears; a map of Dartmoor.  I could put links to versions of each of the stories, but I shan't. You can find the stories if you want to, but it seems to me that this is strictly a museum for disciples. I was, however, impressed with how many of the stories Linda still remembered.  

The actual wicker chair which the artist used for the Strand Magazine's illustration of The Greek Interpreter was also here, as was a plaster cast from The Six Napoleons. The poisonous blowpipe from The Sign of Four was on display and we had to keep reminding ourselves that these things are 'not real'....

Upstairs again, we came to a room with tableaux from some of the cases. Here was Lady Frances Carfax in her coffin; the noblewoman shooting the blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, and a couple of others.  We were of course, but a step from Madame Tussauds, so I suppose a few models were not out of place.

Perhaps the oddest thing up here was a folder of recent letters to the great man, many of them from China and Japan. The school teacher in me was amused by a disaffected student from Dallas, Texas, who had been set to write a letter as an assignment ('it's an extra credit' she confides to 'Dear Mr dead Sherlock Holmes' going on to suggest that her teacher has 'lost it')

Up again, there was a handsome lavatory suite embellished with blue leaves. I am not sure that there would have been plumbing this high in the house (not least because we had seen a basin and ewer on the ground floor and a 'thunderbox' on the first floor, implying  a less 20th century approach to personal hygiene)

 Also stored under the roof were the valises into which Holmes might fling a few essentials before heading off to serve the various crowned heads of Europe, some of whom presented him with medals which were on display.

So that only left the shop, housed in rather a fine conservatory, but containing nothing that we were drawn to. We were surprised that they were not selling more of the books, for example. Perhaps when the grandsons have been inducted into what really felt a bit like a cult, we might return and shop.

But we had enjoyed ourselves and thought the costumed room attendants managed traffic flow very well. And now it's off to get the complete works down off the shelf for a reread....

Friday, 29 April 2016

Barnet Museum

31 Wood Street
London EN5 4BE
Wednesday April 27  2016

Jo and I had remembered our various bus trips to Barnet well enough to be able to find the Museum fairly effortlessly after the long climb uphill from the Northern Line terminus. The first thing to say is that the staff are very welcoming and they greeted us personally, asking where we had come from. So we explained the Project to them and as mainly Freedom Pass holders they were also familiar with the London Buses Project and part of the blog. The volunteers, for such they were, were all engaged in different aspects of looking and arranging the exhibits.

The Museum is on three floors with a table on the ground floor providing the working space for the volunteers and a most impressive shop with all manner of booklets of local history and ancient crafts on display. The main display here features the Battle of Barnet – ‘Ah, the Civil War,’ said Linda – ‘No,’ said Jo, ever the history teacher, ‘the ‘Wars of the Roses’, I may need to draw you a family tree’, but the Museum already has one with its handy notes so I was instructed as to how, as Richard II had died without heir,  two competing branches of his predecessor’s family assumed they were the rightful heirs… So – I think this is right – Edward (later IV) raised arms against Henry VI ( parts 1-3) and it was the Battle of Barnet that decided the victory.  Last October a new ‘dig’ and exploration started at an alternative local site – it had always been assumed the battle was at Monken Hadley but that may not prove to be the case. This is very much a work in progress but the long standing displays show a diorama of the battle positions and examples of weaponry/armoury used at the time.
From this it became clear that the Museum focuses only on the area where it is situated, namely Chipping Barnet, East Barnet, New Barnet and Hadley, whereas I had thought it would  cover the London Borough of Barnet which stretches of course from Hertfordshire down to Camden and  when formed in 1965 took in the local councils of Friern Barnet, Hendon and Finchley not to mention chunks of Middlesex and Hertfordshire as well. Small but beautiful is the phrase which springs to mind and the plentiful exhibits are lovingly and sensibly displayed covering different aspects of life within the locality.

Also on the ground floor is the collection of old kitchen appliances arranged in the fireplace cum range and including items from hand turned spits to early models of  cleaners and vacuums;  we were lamenting the demise of the quiet and quietly efficient carpet sweeper which I then Googled and found is still available to buy! Some misplaced nostalgia there.  More locally specific were the posters advocating the abolition of Barnet Fair – a long standing horse fair, once the largest in England , now just an amusement fair. Barnet Fair is of course rhyming slang for ‘head of hair’…but I digress.

Upstairs the display cases give a clear picture of Barnet through both World Wars. The Museum has been given a  collection of (very readable and legible) letters from a Sergeant Cyril Smith who started his service life in Quetta India and finished as part of the post-1918 occupying force in Germany. Focussing on one combatant  brings the display alive.  Lest we forget how many died there is a plaque from just one school listing the many young men who never returned.    

The Second World War exhibits include the bomb damage maps and pictures and testaments from local evacuees and the auxiliary fire defence folk. This reminded me of the time we were changing buses down at Barnet Station (the railway one not the Northern Line) and another passenger told us his father had been on ‘fire watch’ during the war up the tower of St John the Baptist Church, the very fine 1420 church added to by William Butterfield which stands practically opposite the Museum.

Another memory from bussing days was the display about the former Friern Barnet Hospital   - as I later gathered from the custodian, technically Friern lies outside the remit of the Museum but was included because of its huge significance. The original hospital for the Insane opened as Colney Hatch in 1851 located well into the country for the benefit of its inmates and doubtless to have them ‘out of sight and out of mind’ for the rest of the population, which is why London was ringed by its huge institutions. By 1890 it had 2248 patients and within 20 years this had increased to 2505 in number. With more enlightened attitudes and legislation by 1965 the farm had closed and the 1983 Mental Health Act, which promoted ‘care in the community’, led to its eventual closure ten years later. Now of course it is a prestigious housing development called Princess Park Manor. Up on the wall straightjackets remind us what ‘care’ used to mean though the instructions that ‘patients should not be left unsupervised in the bath’ could do with being  adhered to today...

The most impressive display on this level is on the evolution (or some might call it decline) of the High Street where pictures and lists of former businesses are displayed alongside the current tenants so the local Boots was once a pub…We have visited several local museums where the remnants of local commerce are displayed – old signs, shop fittings, photos etc – but Barnet has managed to pinpoint the old and the new most effectively and vividly.

Another lively display is the recreation of a Victorian drawing room complete with modesty frills on all the furniture and even more lace to keep clean over the mantelpiece.

There are several cabinets devoted to local leisure which includes the Barnet Bowls club and the ‘High Barnet Foresters Brass band’ (and we thought brass banding was a northern thing.) now just the local band with its badge displaying both the red and white roses of Lancashire and Yorkshire to commemorate the battle of Barnet. Mementoes of the local cinema and of early electric lights replacing the candle power that was so dangerous – remembered in the examples of Fire Insurance marks that houses had to display. Most charming were some consummate paper sculptures recalling the Townswomen’s Guild meetings – note the hats!!

Then it was back down to the basement where the most recent finds from the Battle of Barnet excavations were awaiting variously washing/identifying and listing. One of the volunteers pointed to a triangular metal object, apparently a ‘chape’ which fits on the end of a scabbard to stop the sword poking through… She was also kind enough to offer us refreshments while we finished our visit. 

There used to be a museum in Hendon (this piece recalls and laments its passing)  and Barnet has absorbed some of the domestic items – so children’s toys and some clothes and shoes and beauty aids. On chatting with the staff they told us they had wanted to take on more objects but are running out of space and their applications to extend behind the ground floor have been turned down at a high level – it seems they have been described thus by the former council leader: ‘Barnet libraries are staffed by white middle class left wing activists’ which coming from the disgraced Brian Coleman I take to be something of a compliment.

Said ‘activists’ were very hospitable to us and spent some time lamenting their lack of space and so their inability both to expand or look at some more inclusive exhibitions. We had  greatly enjoyed our visit to this museum and the chance to learn more about this small corner of North London and its historic  links to  a key battle in the Wars of the Roses amongst
very much else.  (Including this rather random exhibit>>>>)

Friday, 22 April 2016

RAF Museum London (2)

Grahame Park Way
Stanmore NW9 5LL

21 April 2016

As Linda wrote at the time, our visit to the RAF Museum on 23 March was very incomplete, so today we tried again, paying close attention to the little map you can pick up at the entrance.  Even so, we did not find it easy, as the Battle of Britain Hall is mainly labelled 'Echo Alpha Tango' (Eat, ie the restaurant, you see) and the clearest signage of all is to the Conference Centre....

Still, this time we did try harder, and walked through the 'Milestones of Flight' following signs to the Control Tower. Here we found a couple if information boards about Air Traffic Control, but mostly it was a portrait gallery of First World War Flying Aces from all nations. A 'victory' is the shooting down of any enemy aircraft, and five 'victories' makes you an Ace. We noted that one US pilot had 18 victories, but 14 of them were balloons, which we thought might be a rather easier target than some.
There was just one Russian who, having been appointed an attache in Washington, chose to become a US citizen rather than return to the now-Bolshevik USSR. The 'Red Baron' is obviously a different meaning of the term red:  but von Richthofen was of course here, as were many British and Dominion Pilots. The fact that there were no parachutes in those days was brought home by the story of Max Ritter von Muller, who preferred to jump to his certain death rather than stay in his burning plane.
There was an interactive screen on this floor, but it was out of order as indeed were the lifts.  We don't know whether this was 'again' or 'still' following our last visit a month ago, but we were glad stairs are not a problem for us.

Next we came to the story of how the RAF saved Britain from invasion in 1940. I shall just say now that there was not a single mention of the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy here or anywhere that I could find, leaving me to wonder where the RAF got the aviation fuel. And also to reflect on Admiral Jervis' remark to the House of Lords in 1803: 'My Lords, I do not say the French cannot come, I merely say they cannot come by sea'. Since it was the Royal Navy who saved the Army at Dunkirk, with precious little air cover (explained on a wall: need to save the planes for later) I felt the RAF version was a little oversimplified, to say the least. But I digress.

The story is told in three phases, really:  Radar gave Britain a huge advantage; if Goering had concentrated on the Radar stations, the RAF would have been unable to see;  but then Goering switched to trying to wipe out the planes and airfields;  and that would have been successful had Hitler not ordered the target to be switched to London and the other cities. So, the displays and film explain, we won the Battle of Britain, the USA entered the war, and so to D-Day and Victory. 

We passed the simulator (£3.00) and followed signs which said 'this way' to reach the Bomber Hall through a plastic tunnel.  The foyer area is dedicated to Remembrance, with boards about the Cenotaph, war memorials and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. One side wall provides information about AeroFilms and Britain from the air.  We were struck by photos of the terrible floods of 1953, well within our lifetime.

  There were also some screens with information about the life of Prisoners of War: many RAF pilots ended up in German hands, and in the camps reserved for the airforce (Stalag LUFT), as we know from innumerable feature films. The description of the long marches forced on them as the Allies advanced was pretty harrowing.

But of course the main point of the hall in the absolutely enormous aeroplanes. 'How did they ever take off?' mused Linda.  We saw planes of all periods and followed the history of bombing through to the nuclear option, air-to-air missiles, and then the unmanned flights now used. There was a separate section about the Cold War and the tensions that Linda and I grew up with. 

We enjoyed the history of Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service. They were once deployed with the RAF but now that all military hospitals are closed, they work in units of the NHS and are also used in repatriating wounded service personnel.  We saw film of them working during the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. 

Linda had wanted to see a Halifax Bomber, having read the Kate Atkinson novel, but none survived the war intact. So we were very interested in the story of the plane lifted from Lake Hoklingen in Norway and restored. This aircraft was part of the attack on the Tirpitz.

The next attraction was some filmed information about the Dambusters Raid, or Operation 'Chastise'.  It took us a few moments to locate the button which starts the film, since it was a couple of metres away from the screen. Despite having seen the 1955 feature film several times, I learned several new and interesting facts: Guy Gibson was only 24 years old when he commanded 617 Squadron; the bouncing bomb was code named 'Upkeep'. And, most interesting of all, the Squadron's Badge depicts a dam being breached with the motto 'Apres moi le deluge'.

The Historic Hangars contained more aeroplanes, but also a model of a crashed bomber crew in a life raft, about to release a pigeon. We made our way out (through doors labelled 'welcome to the Conference Centre') and headed to the Battle of Britain Hall. Here there was a display about the rise of the Nazis and the way they circumvented the Treaty of Versailles and were able to have their airforce ready as soon as Hitler began his open rearming. We saw Neville Chamberlain and his 'piece of paper', and exhibits about Evacuation, Anderson Shelters and the Auxiliary Fire Service. A few minutes of film gave us information about the development and importance of Radar. There was also a section outlining the story of Enigma

A huge (St Pancras 'Meeting Place' size) statue of Sir Keith Park dominates one end of the hall, but more absorbing was the wall covered with Squadron badges, and Linda and I spent a few minutes dusting off our latin and translating.  A wall was lined with the names of all the Battle of Britain pilots (2353 of them) of who 544 died. 791 more died before the end of the war, a terrible number until you read that 55,000 bomber crewmen died. Upstairs there was a display of uniforms and medals and a couple of celebrity life stories: Douglas Bader was one, and Lawrence 'of Arabia' another, though his time in the was under the pseudonyms Ross and then Shaw.

The Museum had done an Art project with some students, and we admired portraits of RAF personnel in their old age alongside photographs of them in their service days.

We returned to the ground floor and the modern world by walking through a Sunderland Seaplane, bombs and all, though the last exhibit to catch our eye was a Nazi V2 rocket presaging, I suppose, the next stage in air power after the aeroplane.

We had found the museum really interesting, and would never have seen it all in one visit, even if we had known where to go. But clearer signage would be good....