Friday, 6 May 2016

The Sherlock Holmes Museum

221B Baker St 
NW1 6XE

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....

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Grant Museum of Zoology

Rockefeller Building
21 University Street
London WC1E 6DE

Wednesday April 13 2016


The Grant Museum  is part of the University group of  museum collections  and we were hoping for a better time than we had some months back at the stuffy, in every sense, Petrie Collection.

Jo thought this was likely as they maintain a lively blog with students guesting on  entries and so there is a certain level of self-awareness for e.g when commenting on ‘boring fish fossil of the month.’ And indeed we both greatly enjoyed this compact yet dense display now housed in a former library with an upper gallery not accessible and a range of cases and tables ( presumably for handling) and reference books generously available. The signage was good – they had left the Victorian brown labels with minute handwriting tied onto the various objects but had added big labels which gave very straightforward and legible information. Most of the objects are skeletons or parts thereof and where the animals might seem a little rare or unknown they have provided a very small (as might go into a toy Noah’s Ark) model thereof to remind you that a tapir and okapi for example are not the same thing or even remotely related.

The skeletons are arranged in species groups so the above mentioned fish both skeletal and fossil are all together, some are preserved in liquid (we presume formaldyhyde which we remember with little fondness from school) so it was rather odd to have the fish swimming vertically not horizontally – to save space we concluded. I had no idea what a Remora Fish was, not having spotted it on the wet fish slab at Sainsbury’s  – so it seems it suckers onto anything that passes including  scuba divers.

The Porcupine fish looked almost as big as its landlocked namesake.


Reptiles always make good copy and we were most impressed with the rock python skeleton, most beautifully mounted – my memory from reptile enclosures at zoos is that they are pretty static anyway so the skeleton was every bit as interesting.  The frogs and toads on display were all certainly bigger than the home grown variety and included both cane and midwife toads.

There is of course a section for extinct animals including a sprinkling of dinosaurs in fossil or skeleton form. More recent specimens that have been hunted to extinction include the Quagga which sounds as though it ought to be some kind of Australian cocktail but turns out to be a South African mammal related to the zebra (there is a little model here too). Jo wondered whether someone could not take some DNA and try to clone a new style Quagga ‘Jurassic Park’ style – how right she is; here is the Quagga Project.

There were some Dodo bones which we missed but on the whole I prefer the stuffed and stone (d) Dodo at the Horniman Museum.

There are some impressive cat family bones and two elephant skulls which is all the space allows for – there is also a preserved elephant heart including all the various tubes. As I believe most hearts work the same way it’s a useful exhibit for illustrating heart function.
Another LARGE exhibit (and one of their Top Ten Objects) is the giant deer – the antlers are 3m across on an animal which would have been about 2 metres high so I guess the ‘architects’ for the Crystal Palace Park dinosaurs  got it about right .
The archaeopteryx shows quite clearly the transition from reptile to bird..(except it's a pterodactyl photo

Looking at the saltwater crocodile Jo was reminded of her trip to Australia when they were warned off from bathing on a white sandy beach as apparently these crocs have a fine turn of speed and are apt to snatch folk off the beach. Sea cucumbers are altogether more peaceful and apparently related to starfish! Talking of Australia there are fine coral specimens and I always forget that sponges are really animals.


The most disturbing objects are those pickled in jars – there were plenty of body parts in the Hunterian, but the Grant’s jars have many, many moles (whole ones) squashed together and mice similarly packed in but still very recognisable.

There is a sub-collection of skulls --- from monkeys to man and some of these are bisected  to show ‘the inner workings’ .

So how did this collection come about?

Robert Grant was a Scot who was eventually established as professor at London University – as you might guess from the  collection he was a keen follower of Darwin and amongst the first to teach his theories as part of the curriculum – very  forward thinking when you realise there are several Southern US States where Creationism is still taught and Darwin banned… There are pictures of Victorian era students dissecting and examining many of the specimens you can see today and his aim was to have ‘one of everything’. For the visitor the crammed cases with many highlights are a delight of surprise and learning – small but perfectly formed, and I have only given you a very small taster of what is on offer.