Café In the Crypt and The Roman Dead @ Museum of London: Docklands

IMG_20180904_133032_729From the British Museum, mom and I headed back to Trafalgar Square to finally visit the Café in the Crypt at St. Martin’s in the Field. I previously visited the café on my New Years trip to London and loved it. The café is located, as the name implies, in the old crypt of the church. The space and all of its associations truly deserve a blog all their own on death tourism and dark histories. Tables are located on top of grave stones and the crypt is surrounded by memento mori and memorial stones. Income from the café helps fund preservation and outreach programs at the church. When I told my students about this café, they were horrified at the thought of eating on graves and saw it as disrespectful, yet they were all about some ghost tours… as I said, lots more for another blog. All in all, the cafe made a mean scone and pot of tea, and the cakes looked to die for (lol see what I did there?).20180904_151621

We ubered on over to the East Side of London, which I was visiting for the first time, to the Museum of London: Docklands to see the Roman Dead exhibit that I had been looking forward to for months. The museum is located in the industrialized docks of the East End on Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. The landscape is an interesting mix of industrial, commercial, and new sleek business buildings along the high-tech docks.  As a huge fan of Call the Midwife, set in this area of London, it was a bit shocking to see modern Poplar compared to 1950s and 1960s Poplar of the TV show.

DSC03390~2Our welcome at the museum was superb, and the FOH staff member we spoke with was a graduate of UNC, just a few hours from home; small world! We first went to see the Roman Dead exhibit before exploring the rest of this excellent museum. According to their website,  “Last year, a Roman sarcophagus was found near to Harper Road in Southwark. What does this unique find tells us about the ancient city that 8 million people now call home? We’ve displayed the sarcophagus alongside the skeletons and cremated remains of 28 Roman Londoners found during archaeological excavations of ancient cemeteries. The exhibition also features over 200 objects from burials in Roman London, exploring how people dealt with death in Londinium. Many items were brought here from across the Empire, showing the extent of London’s international connections, even at this early time in its history.”DSC03401~2

The exhibit also, “uses these grave goods and the results of scientific analysis of ancient Londoners’ skeletons to explore who Roman Londoners were, and show the surprising diversity of the ancient city.”One of the coolest aspects is an online interactive display available here: “Take a closer look at the exhibition’s most fascinating objects by exploring our interactive display.”

DSC03405~2I loved this exhibit. From the warning at the beginning about he display of human remains, to the treatment and interpretation of remains and funerary objects including cremated remains, full skeletons, childrens’ remains, and even animal and pet remains.

One of the best parts was the diversity (sex , age, and race/ethnicity) of these skeletons, all found in London from the Roman periods of history.   The museum did a great job of connecting the diverse history of London to its current status as one of the most diverse cities in Europe. Additionally, the connection between people 2000 years ago to modern people was presented with ease; people cared about their pets as family members, were sometimes buried with treasured belongings, and worried about the afterlife and what comes next, in many of the same ways that people do today.

DSC03393~2Soft lighting, quiet space, and layout of the exhibit seemed respectful and somber as was fitting for a room full of human remains. The interpretation of these people and their funerary objects, as well as the context of Roman Britain was explained well through text panels and multimedia displays. While I was in the exhibit, several families with children came through, and the children all seemed very engaged by the video, and also the remains themselves.

There were interactives, multimedia, opportunities to find more information, and all the things that make a modern museum exhibit great. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I’m only sad to report that it closed in October of 2018.

DSC03411After some time spent with the dead Romans, I had some time to visit the rest of the Docklands museum to learn the history of the area and people of the East End. This museum is awesome. Not only is it housed in a historic building that shows the connection of the location to industry and the local communities, but they have some very progressive interpretation (especially on colonialism and a surprisingly critical view of the UK’s role in the slave trade) and great interactive opportunities.

20180904_155650One of my favorite parts was the hamster-wheel like recreation of a pulley system from ye olde dockland days (see the photo my mom captured here), and the recreation of a London dock street, “Sailortown” was way too much fun. There were also myriad opportunities for children to play and learn throughout the museum from dress-up corners, to a mining set-up, and interactive recreated living spaces from throughout the decades. I started to get museum fatigue towards the end of our visit, but I really plan to make it back here for another visit on my next trip to London (and the regular Museum of London, too!). From the museum, mom and I headed back to Covent Garden where we ended the night with the traditional cheeky Nandos chicken and British television.

Next: Platform 9 ¾, York, York’s Chocolate Story, and more!

British Museum 2.0

DSC03355~2I’ve often said since my first trip that I didn’t love the British Museum, much to the surprise of everyone who knows me and loves museums. I said in a previous post from 2014 that: “I’ve recently come to realize that I just don’t love huge museums.  I didn’t really like the Met, I really didn’t like the Tate, and the Natural History Museum in NYC was just ok for me.  Why is this?  I’m a museum person! I’m still thinking it all out, but I think it might have to do with the exhaustion of vacation, the sheer size of the places, my feeling that I NEED to see everything, and the amount of people there.  Also, they seem like spaces for rich, old, white people most of the time.  It’s kind of like that feeling I get sometimes at big parties, where I’d rather talk to the wait staff.  Maybe I’ve just built them up so big for so many years that they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype in my mind.”

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Me with my girl Sekhmet; best of the Egyptian pantheon

My second trip in September 2018 was much better. I went in this time with a goal to see the Egyptian and Greek sections, the Sutton Hoo, all the bodies I could, and enough to give my mom a good sense of the museum. My mom was an excellent sport, playing along every time I started in with, “Did you know…” as we traveled through ancient world history. We saw the Assyrian reliefs, including what we decided is probably the first recorded dog blep (good catch, mom!), Rosetta stone, a bevy of Sekhmets, a small bit of the Parthenon Marbles, one of the best papyri representing the Egyptian afterlife, and the Paulos/Saulos spoons of the Sutton Hoo. So many amazing things.

DSC03312~2My main goal in this visit was to examine the display of human remains in the museum. Throughout the Egyptian section, the human remains of mummies and Predynastic skeletal burials abound. One section explored diet and daily life through human remains from dentition to bone structure. The typical wrapped Egyptian mummies were on full display, mummified remains out of wrappings, and skeletal remains from children and adults serve to show changes over time and by class or age or diet or a myriad of other things. Since only about 1% of the British Museum’s collection is on display, I wonder about the variety of individuals not on display. Their catalog lists the various human remains on their website: from cremated remains to hair to mummies and skeletons the variety is endless.

DSC03332~2One of the most interesting interactives that was new to me on this visit was the “autopsy table” for 5,500 year old “Gebelein Man A.” This was an interesting look inside the mummy, and the exhibit gives visitors a chance to investigate the scientific information gleaned from research on the mummy over the past few years. Signage throughout the area explained the scientific value of researching this body, and new evidence shows that Gebelein Man A has some of the oldest tattoos ever found preserved on human skin.

DSC03342~2Moving on from the Egyptian section, I found other remains in the Neolithic Britain area of the museum. A recreation of a burial from Stonehenge was on full display in the room, and around a corner I found “Lindow Man”, one of the famous bog bodies found throughout Northwest Europe. The contrast between the display of local remains in the National Museum of Ireland and those of England offer an interesting contrast. In Ireland, the bodies are displayed in small, private, quiet, and softly lift areas for each body. In England, Lindow Man was tucked around a corner, not in full view, but seemingly stuck amongst the rest of the detritus of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. I have more thoughts on this that I am still fully fleshing (lol) out.

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my “well actually” historian face

After a few hours of jetting through to see as much as possible, and buying all of the tea towels in the shop, my general thoughts on the British Museum remain, “…thrilling to see, and … a testament to colonial conquests,” but I am happy I got to revisit, and I hope to be back again soon!

Next up: more human remains at the Museum of London: Docklands Roman Dead exhibit and some death tourism at the Café in the Crypt in St. Martin’s-in-the-Field in Trafalgar.

Egypt in Edinburgh

I was so, so, so excited to visit Edinburgh while the new The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial exhibit was on. Egypt, mummies, museum, and death customs; what’s not to love?

IMG_20170513_141345816.jpgAt the time of writing this, the exhibit has closed, but luckily the National Museums of Scotland have an excellent web presence, with information, interactive, videos, and even games and learning materials.

The exhibit is described on their website as such:

The Tomb was constructed in the great city of Thebes shortly after the reign of Tutankhamun for the Chief of Police and his wife. It was looted and reused several times, leaving behind a collection of beautiful objects from various eras. These are displayed alongside objects found in nearby tombs, giving a sense of how burial in ancient Egypt changed over time.

The Tomb’s final use occurred shortly after the Roman conquest of Egypt, when it was sealed intact with the remarkable burials of an entire family. The exhibition comes ahead of the new Ancient Egypt gallery, opening at the National Museum of Scotland in 2018/19.

Interactives in use!

When I visited in May 2017, the gallery was a bit crowded, especially with children.  This limited my ability to try out the interactive elements of the exhibits (get off my lawn – adults like play, too), but it was nice to see kids excited about history.

Like Jameson Distillery, the exhibit used multi-sensory engagement and technologies so visitors can learn more and connect with the past.

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Touch, see, and smell table

I also really liked the exhibit text and content, which isn’t praise I give out lightly. I’m generally easily bored or uninterested in text, but the detail and translation of ancient funerary texts was fascinating! They also include a youtube video explaining the text on their website:

Next time I visit the museum, hopefully the new Egypt gallery will be open.  I can’t wait!

New Research Projects, Travel, and… Death?

Lately I’ve contemplated where my research will take me following the publication of my manuscript on accessibility for people with special needs, the publication of a chapter on accessibility in education in The Manual for Museum Learning, 2nd Edition, and continuing my work towards truly accessible museums.

I’ve decided to take a new track based on the historiographical work I did in my dissertation on museum history and the use of human bodies and human remains in museums. My previous work focused on living humans, often billed as “freaks“, in museums and other exhibitions; now I want to focus on the corporeal remains that we still see in museums today: mummies, bog bodies, medical specimens, skeletons, relics, shrunken heads, and so much more.  What laws (aside from NAGPRA) govern the display and collection of human remains? What are the ethics involved here? How does the public react to these remains? These are just some of the questions I hope to answer as I embark on a new research plan.

I have organized a roundtable at the National Council on Public History meeting in 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada to present preliminary findings and bring together a fascinating group of women who study these questions. Our presentation, “Death and Display, Bodies and Boundaries” will explore our own work and also encourage participation from our audience. I’ve invited my former college roommate, Shelby Judge, a modern funeral director; Laura Anderson Barbata, artist and activist; Dr. Trish Biers, osteoarchaeologist at Cambridge University museums; and Kristen Semento from Winterthur Museum and Gardens.

As I planned my most recent trip abroad, I knew I would have the opportunity to visit international museums that are working with these issues. What I didn’t know was the amount of opportunities that would present themselves on my trip. My future blogs will detail some of the places I visited and some of the remains I encountered in Ireland and Scotland.

The first stop on my trip to Ireland was the Irish Museum of Modern Art. I had just arrived in Ireland, my hotel room was not ready, and my husband and I needed to get out and see the sights while we waited. The only problem was: I don’t think I have ever been as exhausted as I was on this museum visit. I was jet-lagged. I was running none hour of plane sleep. It. Was. Awesome.

Image result for living need light dead need music

You may have read my thoughts on art museums in the past; in short, I’m not their biggest fan. IMMA was in a great historic building, and there were some interesting exhibits while we were there. However, there was one exhibit in particular that spoke to me through my sleepy haze and has stuck with me. It also set the tone for my exploration into death and bodies.

In the back of the museum, in a quiet, dark room with benches (the initial attraction, let’s be real), I encountered a film installation. The piece, titled The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music by The Propeller Group is probably the best video installation I have ever seen.  Their description reads:

The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Musicis a visual and musical journey through the fantastical funeral traditions and rituals of south Vietnam. It attempts to engage in dialogue with funerary traditions that pulsate in the same vein throughout the global south. The film merges documentary footage of actual funeral processions with stunning re-enactments that bring the film into the realm of the abstract, poetic and metaphorical – a rumination on death and the lives that pay homage to it.

I encourage you to watch the video in its entirety if you can. It is so fascinating, beautiful, disturbing, scary, and amazing all at the same time. The fact that I was almost at a hallucinatory stage of tiredness only heightened by appreciation for the piece. However, it stands up even as I re-watch it today.

So that’s it! I’m on a new program of research, and I’m so excited to have already been welcomed with open arms by so many Death Historians and Death Academics. Thank you, and I can’t wait to let you all know more about my research!

Guest Post: Art and Museums with Charles Clary

As I’ve detailed before (here, here, and in random snarky comments throughout), I have a lot of feelings about art museums.  Luckily, I’m engaged to an artist!  I asked him to answer some questions as an artist for my understanding, and for the understanding of my readers.

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Charles Clary, Artist Extraordinaire

Learn more about artist Charles Clary on his website and see his most up-to-date work on his instagram feed!

I’m hoping to write more about art museums and interdisciplinary studies more in the future – I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

Q.  Why are art museums important?

A. Art museums are a place in which the people can enjoy the labors of the individuals capturing the feeling and the mood of a society at any particular time in history. Art collections are great and to the extent that one can amass a collection – I’m all for it. But many people lock those pieces into private collections, usually away from the society to which the art was created. Museums allow for the lending of these works to museums that can show case them prominently and within a historical context so that everyone can enjoy these precious objects.
This seems like it might make an art museum more interesting!

This seems like it might make an art museum more interesting!

Q.  What is the difference between a gallery and a museum?

A. A gallery is run much like a business, in many cases for profit. Now, there are non-profit galleries as well as alternative space galleries and pop up galleries that seek to showcase the content of the work for free, but many galleries are set up as for-profit spaces. That’s not to say galleries are only concerned with making money, but it is a part of the art world and the experience. A museum is a place free from the pressure of sales, which allows the artist to delve deeper into their process and content, to go bigger, and to explore their work in a more challenging way.
Q.  What is history’s place in art museums?
A. History is forever linked to art. Art speaks to the time in which it was created; it’s a moment captured in paint, or chisled into marble. Art has the ability to become a time capsule or a snapshot of a moment in time that we would never be able to witness without the work. History influences the creation of art, either through religion or individuals. There was often a patron who bankrolled the work, which also influenced the artist. Every great society or time period – Egyptian, Roman, Greek, European Renaissance, Middle East – is defined by the art work and utilitarian devices they created.
Is it?

Is it?

Q.  What’s with the boring labels that tell me no history?

A.  Art is an experience, not a bumper sticker. If the story is all given away in the beginning or in the title, then why spend time with the work? It’s the process of discovering what the work is about through key visuals or clues within the work that forms the narrative;  it’s exciting to put two and two together. In most museum exhibitions, the entrance has a description of the artist and what might have been going on at that time in history and where the movement might have been or where it was to go. Museums also have great audio tours that attempt to quantify the work being viewed and situate it into a context that makes it make sense.
Q.  Which is your favorite art museum?
A.  I’m a big fan of the Pompidou in Paris France it’s a fantastic art museum that explores all aspects of contemporary art: design, sculpture, installation art, furniture design, painting so on and so forth. I also love the Louvre for the rich history of painting and sculpture. As far as galleries I’m a huge fan of Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn and what they do to advance contemporary art both in their man space as well as in their space called The Boiler meant for large scale sometimes interactive installations.
At Kilmainhaim Gaol

At Kilmainhaim Gaol

Q. Favorite history museum/site?

A.  I really enjoyed the Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.  The stories of people, their lives, and their times had a huge impact on me, and was one of my favorite parts of our first time in Ireland.  Belfast was also interesting, as a more modern historical site, and the commemorative murals there do a great job of combining memory, art, and history.
Q.  How can art and history museums work together, or history museums with artists?
A.  I think both need to realize that one is not more important than the other. History defines society, society defines History through art. The more they can work together to describe the advancements in technology and culture through the images and objects that are left behind the better for all involved.
Thanks, Charles!  Now, tell me all about Marcel Duchamp….
What do YOU think about art and art museums?  Any other artists interested in answering similar questions or engaging in a dialogue?

The British Museum: Elgin Marbles, Cabinet of Curiosities, and Overwhelming Spaces

British Museum front facade

British Museum front facade

On the best day in London ever, I had a chance to visit the British Museum, which was a dream come true.  For years, I’ve read about the museum, longed to see the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone, and I even used the museum in my dissertation as an example of the old paradigm of museums.

Old paradigm, indeed.

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In the entryway

I’ve recently come to realize that I just don’t love huge museums.  I didn’t really like the Met, I really didn’t like the Tate (next blog coming soon), and the Natural History Museum in NYC was just ok for me.  Why is this?  I’m a museum person! I’m still thinking it all out, but I think it might have to do with the exhaustion of vacation, the sheer size of the places, my feeling that I NEED to see everything, and the amount of people there.  Also, they seem like spaces for rich, old, white people most of the time.  It’s kind of like that feeling I get sometimes at big parties, where I’d rather talk to the wait staff.  Maybe I’ve just built them up so big for so many years that they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype in my mind.

Regardless, the British Museum was still impressive, and again, the Day of the Feels continued.

We walked up Drury Lane to Museum Lane, and rounded the corner to find the great British Museum.  I got really excited about what was going to come next – I mean, this is THE place!  Home of the Rosetta Stone, countless Egyptian and Middle Eastern artifacts, and bane of every museum professionals’ ethical and reasoning mind powers – the Elgin Marbles.  I had a bit of the vapors as we went in, saw the entrance, and walked through some of the Egyptian rooms – but the real feels didn’t come until…

EMOTIONS!

EMOTIONS!

We got to the room filled with the Elgin Marbles.  They were huge, and beautiful, and amazing… and I was so sad that here they were in the middle of London, instead of in Greece still on the Parthenon.  Of course, there are many pros and cons to this situation, which is why its a perfect Museums Studies class discussion.  But the current ethnic Greeks aren’t the same ones who are there now – but the Turks sold them to that British guy – but otherwise they would be destroyed – but but but – I really can’t decide what is right or wrong in this case.  All of that aside, they were astounding to see.

Elgin Marbles!

Elgin Marbles!

Charles dragged me along, I saw the Rosetta Stone and felt/got felt by a ton of people trying to do the same thing, and the rest of the museum is kind of a blur.  I remember seeing some goat mosaics, and the large library-esque room.

I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.

I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.

The British Museum also seemed a bit, like most huge museums, to be a Cabinet of Curiosities gone wild.  There is a hodge-podge of  anything and everything there.  Some of it was thrilling to see, and some of it seemed to be a testament to colonial conquests.

We saw all the things and stuff,  as you can see in the pictures below, but by the time we got to the more modern exhibit of watches and timepieces, I grabbed a small stool and sat in a hall while Charles explored some more.

Final thoughts – I am an expert spotter of goats, both in the wild, and especially in museums.

Also, I can’t decide if I have memory fatigue from that day because of the sheer size of the collection and space, or if it was because of the reasons raised in this fantastic article on the Huffington Post called “Why Taking Photos At Museums Is Hindering Your Memory. “When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences,” Henkel explains in a description of the study.”

It was nice to get back into the fresh air as we walked on to the Richard II performance.  I’m still processing the whole visit to the British Museum, but I wouldn’t say I DIDN’T like it.  It was just a little overwhelming.  I also can’t say I’d particularly want to go back to it, either.

Hopefully someday, I’ll think some more about the visit and update this blog with more thoughts and feels…

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London: A Walk Through History and Modernity

We woke up the next morning, December 30, after a pleasant night full of chicken curry and great sleep, ready to take on the streets of London.

LondonWe started the day with Cafe Nero (thanks for the suggestion, Kelsey!) hot chocolate and espresso.  Cafe Nero quickly became a twice-daily part of our time in London.  There was one right across the street from the flat, and the public restrooms in the cafes throughout the city were an added bonus.  We also stopped by a little bookstore to buy a pocket map of the city.  Luckily, I have an impeccable sense of direction, AND I was a geography minor, so we didn’t even come close be being lost (not that we could have been, since we were just wandering!).

Having the feelings

Having the feelings

The day started out perfectly misty and damp, just how London should be.  We crossed the mighty (brown) Thames to the Embankment where we saw a beautiful World War II memorial, a great view of the Eye, and Parliament and Big Ben.  This is a great intersection of the modern and historical sides of London.  The Thames has been the center of life in London from the time of Henry VIII,  William the Conqueror, and even earlier.  The Millennium Wheel, or London Eye, is a once controversial sign of modern London.  The timelessness (ha!) of Big Ben is iconic, and the history made in and around Parliament is also impressive.  Needless to say, I was overwhelmed with all the feelings about history.

An accurate depiction of me outside Westminster Abbey. Thanks, Sherlock.

By the time we turned the corner and saw Westminster Abbey, I was having even more feelings. Let’s just take a second here to recount just a few of the things that have happened here.

  • Construction on the present church began in 1245 by Henry III (he’s also buried there)
  • Before that, William the Conqueror and his successors were coronated on the same site
  • Survives the Tudor era and all the there and back again of Catholic/Protestant rule
  • Weddings: Henry I of England to Matilda of Scotland, Queen Elizabeth II to Phillip, and Will and Kate of course!
  • People buried there: kings and queens (excluding 2 of my favs: Henry VIII and Richard II),   Geoffrey Chaucer Isaac Newton, and  Charles Darwin
Charles and the Arch

Charles and the Arch

We didn’t pay the fee to go in, but I did fangirl appropriately outside, and buy a tiny gargoyle and some tea in the giftshop.

Next, we decided to go ahead and see Buckingham Palace and see where the day took us from there.  The weather cleared up, and the sun even showed itself!  We walked through the park, saw some geese, then turned the corner to the iconic palace.  I didn’t have as many feelings here, but I did try to keep an eye out for the queen!  We walked along the royal apartments, took a picture with the changing guards, saw Charles’ favorite spot up to this point, Admiralty Arch, and then continued on to Trafalgar Square.

and we'll never be royals.. that kinda lux just ain't for us.

and we’ll never be royals.. that kinda lux just ain’t for us.

In Trafalgar, we stopped at yet another Cafe Nero, saw the lions and Napoleon, and a big blue chicken.  Since we were already out and about, we made the quickest of stop at a McDonalds (reminiscent of our first morning in Dublin) for a cheeseburger on the go – no stopping for real food on this day of site-seeing! At this point, we figured why not go on and go all out – we walked up Drury Lane (of muffin Man fame!) to the British museum (where I again had all the feels – but that’s a topic for another blog, coming next week!). – Spoiler alert – I got emotional about the Elgin Marbles.

From the British Museum, we walked on to the Barbican Centre for one of the many highlights of the trip: David Tennant, the 10th Doctor himself, starring in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of Richard II.  Seriously – what a day of emotions, and I am not an emotional person (it’s the Britishness I inherited – stiff upper lip!). I mentioned in a recent blog that he is my dream guest blogger – still waiting on that call, Davy!  The performance was great, we loved it, then we waited out by the back stage door for him to emerge in all of his hair-extension-ponytailed glory.  I was so close, that had I not been so polite, I could have touched him.  The ponytail served as a great repellent.

Instead of a tackle or full contact hug, I just did a weak little wave.  Safe, but lame.

Instead of a tackle or full contact hug, I just did a weak little wave. Safe, but lame.

Walking on air, we went over to the Jugged Hare for the best dinner of all time.  Charles had the slow roasted rump of a Hertfordshire Fallow Deer, and I had a meat pie.  I don’t think this one was cooked by Mrs. Mooney or Mrs. Lovett, but it was certainly deserving of a song of how great it was.  The deer rump was the most delicious piece of meat I have ever tasted.

We started back to the flat around midnight, and passed Saint Paul’s Cathedral along the way.  This was one of the (if not THE) most impressive sights we saw on the trip – and we saw an awful lot of stuff. We had seen it in the distance earlier in the day, and it is an iconic part of the London skyline.  Seeing it in person, bigger than life, was something else.  None of the pictures can do it justice.

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St. Paul’s at Night

We continued along the Thames, which was the only time I was slightly uncomfortable in London – along the river, at midnight, under bridges.  Maybe we should have taken a different route.  Things were a wee bit confusing as the city was preparing to set up for the fireworks on New Years Eve.  Regardless, we made it back to the flat and passed out from a day full of excitement.

To sum it up, looking back on the day’s events, this was possibly one of the very best days of my life (surpassed by the day before when I got engaged in northern Ireland and that time I graduated with a PhD).

Next time:

  • Actually go in Westminster Abbey
  • Climb to the top of St. Paul’s
  • Ride the London Eye
  • Museum of London
  • Go back to the Jugged Hare
london day 1

Day 1 in London

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Eleven Questions for Museum Bloggers

Quick break from travel to the museum world again!

Playing with an 80'sversion of a museum interactive at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, TN

Playing with an 80’sversion of a museum interactive at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, TN

Last month the Berlin Museum of Natural History launched a series of eleven questions for museum bloggers on Museum Blogger Day.  Max van Balgooy, museum consultant extraordinaire and blogger over at Engaging Places posted his answers, and I’m following his example.  As Max said on his blog, he “received the list of questions from Gretchen Jennings of Museum Commons, who received it from Linda Norris at the Uncatalogued Museum, who received it from Jamie Glavic at Museum Minute, who received it from Jenni at Museum Diary, who received it from the Museum Things blog at Natureskundemuseum.   I suppose this might be a new version of the old “chain letter,” but more fun and with no dire consequences if you fail to participate (and of course, the questions were modified along the way, just like a telephone tree).”

1. Who are you and what do you like about blogging?

I am a person interested in all aspects of history, museums, public history, travel, tourism, and so much more.  I wrote a whole blog about how I got to this place in my life, which is available here.  I have a PhD in Public History, I’m the Executive Director of a historic house in Knoxville, Tennessee, I wrote a book about education and access at historic houses and sites for people with special needs and disabilities, and I love goats.  I love blogging, especially post-graduation, because it keeps me active in the field, thinking about issues, and learning more about topics I’m interested in.  It also connects me to some pretty fantastic people out there in the museum world.

2. What search terms lead people to your blog?

Ever since Abby and Tori did guest blogs as part of a series on TLC programming as the modern sideshow, Honey Boo Boo is a major search term.  Also, ancient aliens and variations on that, thanks to a blog about the horrid abomination that is the “History” Channel.  My name is also a popular search term, which is sufficiently creepy. Here is a chart of the top search terms:

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3. How long have you been blogging, and has your blog changed in any way since you began it?  How?  

My very first blog was posted in July of 2010, soon after I graduated from the University of Memphis.  I began blogging at the suggestion of the esteemed Dr. Robert Connolly, who served as one of the greatest museum mentors I could ever ask for.  Looking back at my earliest blogs, I started with some reflections on programs I had worked on, starting the PhD Program, updates, conferences, and random musings on topics related to my interests.  Things have not changed too much, other than my recent shift towards travel and tourism on the heels of my first trip to Europe.

4. Which post on your blog is your personal favorite?

I’ve REALLY loved all of my reflections on my trip to Britain and Ireland earlier this year.  I also like the posts about Freaks and Sideshows, and of course, my wonderful bashing of Ancient Aliens.  The TLC series was a ton of fun, too.

5. If you had a whole week just to blog: which subject would you like to thoroughly research and write about?

I would travel throughout Europe and review all of the museums, of course!  Alternatively, I have a pile of drafts started on various museum topics such as effective tour guides, disaster planning, and a guest blog about art museums by my wonderful fiance.  I really would love to do more about art museums and my intense feelings about them.  All of this will be coming up in the next several months as I find the time to write.

6.  If you could ask anyone to be a guest blogger, who would that be?

Ryan Gosling!

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Or Tim Gunn!

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Or really, the REAL Dream: David Tennant! (David – CALL ME!)

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7. Share your favorite photo that you took at a museum or historic site.

At the Tower of London, near the scaffold memorial, December 31, 2013

At the Tower of London, near the scaffold memorial, December 31, 2013

8.  What was the last museum you visited and what was the experience like?

Other than my workplace or quick jaunts to places around town, the last place I REALLY visited was the Natural History Museum in New York City.  I had a lot of feelings about it, so I can’t really describe the experience right now other than in the most basic terms: disappointing, overwhelming, enraging (mostly the queue process at Will Call), and just kinda meh.  I’ll elaborate more later…

9.  If time and money were no object, what museum [or historic site – KS edit] would you most like to visit?

ALL the museums.  Namely: Museum of London, Westminster Abbey (I cried when I saw the outside), Field Museum in Chicago… back to the Smithsonian, Mount Vernon again, NYC Museum…. I need to think on this more and make a list.

10. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from a failure? [KS Edit – From a success?]

Communication is key!  Most problems are caused by a lack of communication or a simple miscommunication.  Alternatively, good communication and partnership can lead to some of the best successes – any project I’ve worked on with a museum that has been successful was due to the partnerships and teamwork of dedicated individuals.

11.  If you could work anywhere, what museum would you like to work in?

Tough question – ANY museum in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, or England!

Kilmainham Gaol: Tragic Tales & Purposeful Preservation

 

Our entrance into Kilmainham Gaol

Our entrance into Kilmainham Gaol

On our first full day in Dublin, after a long walk through the city in the rain, we ended up at the forbidding Heritage Ireland site, Kilmainham Gaol. We walked through the gates and into the castle-like structure, and we were thrilled to have made it in time for the next tour.  We still had plenty of time to warm up, dry off, and visit the museum before our guided tour began.

The museum was fantastic, and surpassed only by that feeling one gets while walking in the exact space where history happened.  There were several interactives, artifacts, videos, and images to tell the story of the Gaol as a prelude to the tour.  One of the most impactful displays was that of a log book that dated to the time of the Great Famine; in the book, names were recorded with an offense, as well as the punishment incurred.  Men, women, or children who stole even a loaf of bread were subject to imprisonment or even disfigurement in some cases.  Rioting or horse theivery brought on even harsher punishments.  BEcause of the famine, cells became overcrowded, and often cells designed for 1 person housed 5.

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“Beware the risen people…”

The Kilmainham Gaol has a horrific and tragic history.  The oldest section opened in 1796, and windows contained no glass and there was no other lighting within the prison. This made for a dark, damp, and cold abode for those imprisoned there, especially since a prisoner was only given one small candle every two weeks.  The people who called the prison “home” for any amount of time really tell the story of the Gaol, and Ireland as a whole.  Political prisoners, often designated as such by English soldiers,  were some of the most notable prisoners, with the first detained in 1796 when the Gaol was just opened.

Cells along the older section of the gaol.

Cells along the older section of the gaol.

Robert Emmet was another early political prisoner, along with his housekeeper, Anne Devlin. Emmet was executed for treason, but Anne’s story was possibly even sadder than his death.  Anne’s story has stayed with me even now, and I would love to learn more about it.  Essentially, Anne was jailed for carrying information for Emmet’s uprising in the early 1800s.  She was imprisoned in one of these tiny, dark, damp cells and questioned endlessly for the information she had.  She did not give any of the other conspirators up, and eventually she was released.  However, not only did they imprison Anne, they also put her younger brother and many other family members in jail to try to influence her tongue.  Her brother fell victim to disease from the open sewers, and died in the jail.  Even after Anne was released, the police followed her, and she was unable to hold a steady job due to their harassment.  She died alone and without much of anything because of this.  All for the cause of Irish Independence (Éirinn go Brách!).

As we walked through the gaol, already feeling cold and damp from our walk, the walls of prison did nothing to put us at ease or comfort.  I think that this really impacted the tour as a whole, since we saw the dark and felt the cold, much like prisoners would at that time.  Especially in the older sections of the jail, where many of the political prisoners were held. This again proves that, though you may be able to see so many things online and have a virtual experience, there is something about being IN the historic space, where you can TOUCH the history, and FEEL the atmosphere.  This also calls for accessibility for all, to bring this back to my larger research projects.

The beautiful Victorian Wing

The beautiful Victorian Wing

Once we got to the Victorian Wing, the brightness and relative warmth, and much larger jail cells felt a bit better in contrast to the cold, dark, cramped cells in the older section.  As part of reforms, this section was built to truly transform prisoners to change their ways through the light and through meaningful work.  The gaol was closed in 1910, for a period of time…

The site of execution for many of the "rebels" of the uprisings, less than 100 years ago.

The site of execution for many of the “rebels” of the uprisings, less than 100 years ago.

The tour ended on a sad note, and with some of the most recent history of the Gaol. Less than 100 years ago, after the 1916 Uprising, the gaol reopened to house the hundreds of men and women accused of participating in and conspiring for the revolt.  Our last stop on the tour was the stone breaking yard, where sixteen prisoners were executed following the uprising.  All were killed by firing squad, and one, James Connolly, was so injured that he had to be tied to a chair then shot by the firing squad. All 16 were then dumped in a mass grave.  The outcry from this led, along with a lot more fighting and struggle, to the eventual creation of the Republic of Ireland.

Also interesting at the Gaol, and relevant to my current job, is the story of the Preservation of the Gaol. One of the last prisoners was future President, Eamon de Valera. After the prisoners were released and independence gained, the Gaol fell into disrepair.  The Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Committee was established in 1960 to create a museum and monument to Irish nationalism.  Kilmainham’s museum had a great exhibit about this grassroots restoration project.

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this tour to anyone who wants to understand the history of the Republic of Ireland and the Irish people.  When I recently asked Charles to reflect on our time there he explained that to him, too, it, “felt personal, like a holding spot for people already condemned, overwhelming.  You could really feel the atrocities that occurred there; it was just dank and claustrophobic.”

Truth.  Another spot where you can truly feel the history.

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Disaster Planning Code Red – What Can We Learn from the Tragedies in Egypt?

With the  atmosphere in Egypt being what it is, most historians and archaeologists knew it was only a matter of time before aspects of the rich Egyptian history and material culture were destroyed.  Among all the other heartbreaking stories of the massive loss of human life and looting, the story of the Mallawi Museum in Egypt stands out as one of the greatest cultural tragedies in recent history.

The Mallawi Museum after looters took most of the collections

According to the Egypt Heritage Task Force post, around 1050 artifacts from the Mallawi Museum were looted during the nationwide protesting and unrest.  During the event, the security guards were shot at and the museum director was injured.  More recently, reports have come out that the remaining 49 objects that were too large to be looted have been burned in a fire.  In addition to the looting of institutions, many archaeological sites have been left unguarded and illegal digging has taken place to uncover items that may never be recorded by historians.

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