Friday, 9 February 2018

The Crick Institute

1 Midland Rd, Kings Cross, London NW1 1AT

Thursday 8 February 2018

I'm finding it rather hard to write about this visit. Linda did not agree with my view that the Crick Institute is the ugliest building in London, but we were able to share amazement at its huge size, stretching the whole width of the British Library, from Midland Road to Ossulston Street, and reaching up many storeys.  We know that it also reaches down a long way, because we saw it when it was an enormous hole in the ground. 

It is indeed a cathedral of science, as various people have named it.  It is a partnership between a number of scientific institutions, whose names and logos appear in a number of places:  MRC, UCL, Wellcome, Cancer Research UK, Kings and Imperial.

The outside is very accessible, with ramps wherever the level changes, and press buttons for the revolving and other doors.

And the outside is adorned with an enormous art work by Conrad Shawcross.  It is called 'Paradigm', referencing Thomas Kuhn's theory that scientific discovery does not proceed in a linear way but rather by radical shifts in comprehension and application.  The sculpture is huge. I never know what estate agents mean by 'deceptively small' or indeed 'deceptively large' but it's only when you are very near it that it feels 14 metres high.  It's made of piled tetrahedra when grow in size, so that it is 5 metres wide at its maximum, but sits on a base less that a metre in diameter.  The weathering steel of which it is constructed is apparently a reference to the Industrial past of the area.

We caught our breath as we stepped inside the massive atrium, and looked up at the bridges which enable the 1200 scientists who work here to visit each other and share ideas. 

But we had come to visit the Manby Gallery, which is open to the public from Wednesday to Saturday, and has a cafe and other useful facilities. 

The exhibition is called 'Deconstructing Patterns' and involves information about the whole genetic end of science, interspersed with art works. And this is why I said I was 
finding it difficult to write about it.  Some of the science was comprehensible to a member of the general public like me:  little magnifiers and microscopes to enable me to examine my finger tips in their uniqueness.  And of course a model of a double helix is something which we all recognise even if we don't entirely believe it possible that all that is in every cell of every living thing.  But quite a lot of what we saw was beyond me, and the art works did not help my understanding.



We saw a display about scientists collaborating to unpick the patterns which underlie our genes, and heard recordings of scientists talking about their work.  
One of the art works was a film of a scientist's hand gestures as she describes the development of vision cells in fruit flies.  We were interested to note that while we could tell the scientist was female (her jewellery) we could not tell what she was describing.






Every now and then we came to historical exhibits, mostly from the Wellcome Collection;  looking at details in close up is not something new, though obviously easier with modern equipment. Santiago Ramon y Cajal was making meticulous drawings of fly eyes in 1911.

 The Institute feels it necessary to explain its policy on the use of animals in research:  'replace, reduce, refine', while stating that almost all their work is dome with frogs, fish, flies, rats and mice.
At this stage we came to another of the art works, some photos of clouds and of white objects against a background of stainless steel but, if there was an explanation, we did not find it.  

We did enjoy the hand drawn family tree attempting to explain why some of the family had inherited the normal sense of smell where others hadn't.  Even ignorant people like me are aware of recessive genes, even if we don't actually understand them.

There was a fascinating time-lapse film of metamorphosis, with the scientist explaining how cells move and then settle where they belong, with the microscope film of what was going on inside the insect alongside one of the creature in its pupa and then emerging.

Another of the art works was somewhat puzzling:  The students of 1A Arts Holborn Community Association had spent a day here, and there was a film of some of them doing photocopying, going in and out of the building with cups of coffee, and sitting in the auditorium, but all that we felt we learned from that was that they had fun. 
 At the very end,  there were postcards of some of the patterns made by the cells being studied in the place, which were pretty but not entirely explained.

Then we sat in the entrance hall and watched some time lapse film of the building going up, and of 'Paradigm' being constructed and installed.



The building is certainly worth a visit, and I am embarrassed that I was unable to make more sense of the science presented to us in such attractive forms. A visit on one of their open days when scientists explain things may be called for.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

66 East Smithfield
London E1 W 1AW
Thursday February 1 2018



Google maps had advised a brisk 17 minute walk from Shadwell Station but having forgotten my phone, which included all the details of today’s planned visit, I turned the wrong way down Cable Street walking its entire length – this was quite peaceful as little traffic and much of the road given over to a bike lane but also markedly lacking in shops and cafes which are vital if you want to ask your way. Even the maps on the bus stops did not help much. When I got to the end I turned back and found myself on the hideous red route of the Highway where I was the only pedestrian, but at least one of the riverside blocks had a map and by now with building sites all round I found my destination – late again but fortunately Jo had somewhere really pleasant to wait…

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum, part of the professional association from the start, was established in 1841, moved here from Lambeth some 2½ years ago into a purpose-designed and ‘high spec’ building. The generous reception area morphs into the Museum collection. We liked very much that they had displayed their best apothecary bottles and pestles and mortars in the windows alongside the sloped access along the side of the building, which was so well insulated we did not notice either the sound of the dreadful road outside or the very cold weather.

The mainly blue and white jars are Delft' type; the Assyrians were the first to make tin-glazed ware and this spread through the Middle East and then via the Moors to Spain and on to Holland. Many of the containers made expressly for the Apothecary trade came from Norwich where some Dutch (religious) refugees had set up a pottery. 


But back to the pharmacists – if Hippocrates is seen as the founding father of medicine then Avicenna and Galen are also owed much by the pharmacists. Knowledge passed through the Middle Ages and the Middle East and many early practitioners were based in monasteries where there was access to herbal supplies; it has to be said that my knowledge of this comes purely from historical detective fictions where our medieval (Cadfael/Name of the Rose) or Tudor (Shardlake) detectives use the knowledge of friendly and learned monks to solve their crimes and pursue their villains.

In 1841 a group of dispensers/druggists/apothecaries got together and decided the profession needed some regulation, recognition and research so founded the Society, reminding us how good the Victorians were at trying to improve and standardise in an age where rapid industrialisation was taking place. We were pleased to see that, unlike many professional associations, the walls were NOT hung with the portraits of the great and the good  (as I am sure the previous premises had been) but reproductions are to hand in one of the many laminate folders provided. The only portraits still on show are those of an early female president and  Jacob Bell, one of the pioneer founders of the Society. Interestingly, when I was growing up their pharmacy in Marylebone was known to be the only one open on a 24 hour basis and you had to head there if something was needed out of hours…


But far more of the many vitrines are devoted to historical aspects of the pharmaceutical business over the years; the display cabinets are full of fascinating items with the cribs available on different sheets and with the constant juggling I find my notes to be very scarce so the descriptions will be sketchy.

There was much paraphernalia displayed which was needed for the hand manufacture of tinctures, pills and potions which needed to be weighed (hence the scales), distilled with water (samovars used as filters), mixed with other compounds and then moulded into pills – think of making cupcakes but on a tiny scale. The ‘raw ingredients’ were always kept VERY WELL LABELLED and poisons were prominent by their green ribbed bottles. There was an informative key to as to what effects each poison might have (arsenic, strychnine, ricin, nicotine, alcohol, laudanum, belladonna) what they might have been used for and how they are still sometimes used today. All use was carefully controlled and logged (The Poisons Book) and did nothing so much as recall all those old-fashioned thrillers where the protagonists buy poison ‘for the rats’.     


As advances are made in medical research so then the corresponding treatments evolve. The cabinets display early examples of penicillin and how it has evolved into multiple anti-biotics, early syringes for diabetes, and the bones, spices and herbs the original monks ground up. Nicholas Culpepper was very radical for his times treating patients for free and venting his anger about the governments in control.

At one point Jo sad the displays reminded her of  nothing so much as our visit to Robert Opie’s Museum of Brands and PackagingIn many ways I can see the parallels – advertising and branding is all about persuasion and a component of medication is the placebo effect: if the packaging of the pills is suitably persuasive we will almost certainly feel better. Obviously modern medicine is more sophisticated than the Victorian ‘quacks’ peddling bears’ grease as a cure for baldness. I doubt very much the grease was much more than that of the local farmyard animals but isn’t the packaging wonderful?


Also who would have thought that Hiram Maxim (he of the machine gun) had also patented an inhaler?

The most gruesome display (some dispute as to whether we should show this photo so perhaps this blog should come with a health warning?) was the head of a man used to demonstrate some 15 or so skin ailments ranging from acne to herpes, syphilis, impetigo, conjunctivitis and early and advanced skin cancer…



We did find this display fascinating and informative. In any case we have great respect for pharmacists who continue to do sterling work in our local chemists and hospitals, having always to remain vigilant, precise and careful in what they dispense. It is rare nowadays that they have to manufacture their own potions but they need to know dosages and what can and cannot be taken together, and it is fitting that their professional society has a wonderful modern headquarters but still retains many examples of past practice.  .  




Small samovars used to distill water 

Maxim's Inhaler


1944 Penecillin 



Friday, 26 January 2018

Headstone Manor Museum

HA2 6PX

Thursday 25 January 2018
Today, Linda and I went to Harrow's Borough Museum, in the charming setting of Headstone Manor.  The River Yeading runs nearby, and there were catkins overhanging the water of the moat.


The museum exists in three buildings, apart from the Great Barn, which is reserved for weddings and other events of that nature.  The gardens around are being interestingly planted, and will be lovely in a year or two

We began in the small barn, where a film outlined the main events in the history of the manor, and then crossed the bridge into the manor house.


This area has been inhabited for over 10,000 years and, while the museum has comparatively few artefacts, its collection is well displayed and explained.  As befits a community museum, children and families are generously catered for. Rather a nice cartoon mallard (called Bill, hoho) points the way to various puzzles and activities, and there are cases showing the fruits of collaboration with local schools and colleges.

The Romans were here, conveniently for the A5 (or, as it was then, Watling Street) and the Anglo-Saxons had a shrine, or Herga on Harrow Hill.  It is thought that Herga morphed into Harrow as a name.

The Domesday Book confirms what a prosperous place this was in 1087.  Its lord was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and it was a country home for succeeding prelates until Henry VIII annexed it in 1545 and then sold it on to Sir Edward North.  But of course the land continued to be farmed by tenant farmers, whatever was happening to ownership and power.

A country area until the arrival of the railway in 1837, Harrow rapidly became commuter territory.  But a number of industries also flourished here, and we learned about them as we wandered from room to room.


We saw a microlith from the stone age. In Roman times, a potter alled Doinius worked in the village, and his (signed) pots have been found far away, just as Samian ware had been found in Harrow







We were able to move coloured wooden blocks to map the growth of the house over the centuries.  Starting life as . wooden structure, the house was faced with fashionable brick in the 18th century, and sash windows were put in.

The Whitefriars glassworks was one of the most famous industries of the area, and we saw examples of Whitefriars work, as well as the interpretations of the local Art College Students




It was possible to visit the rooms in any order, so we rapidly came to an account of Harrow during the Second World War. There was a splendid display of wartime recipe books and cards, as well as posters about allotments and 'digging for Victory, as well as examples of 'make do and mend' dresses and other wartime items.  We suspect that every borough museum has a child's gasmask, which of course slightly distorts the history, since they were never used except for rehearsal.


Next we came to the area with the dressing up box, but also an excellent opportunity to cut up (wooden) vegetables to make a stew. We were especially impressed with some plastic lettuce leaves, which seemed completely real, and with the interesting information.  Did you know that Tudor cooks always cooked fruit before putting it in a pie?  even strawberries?  apparently for health reasons!

This is where the bread oven had been put in the the 17th century, presumably making the bedroom above nice and cosy.
Upstairs there was a room about Metroland.  The most interesting thing here was a display of period maps, so you could lower them sequentially, and see the green fields (1912) vanish under housing in the 1920s and 30s.  The great Kodak factory was in Harrow before moving to Hemel Hempstead.

Also here was a display of 20th century toys, and some clothes and wallpaper of the period.  Another room had some material about the First World War, though it felt a bit detached from other things we had seen,















There was another room upstairs devoted to the Whitefriars glass works.  Who knew that the chandeliers for the Bath Assembly Rooms were made by Whitefriars?  Another local firm was Hamilton's (Paintbrushes;  there was a display case of them)

There was a room with material about Harrow Private School, explaining that the Trustees had set up John Lyon School in the 1876, to fulfil the terms of the original Tudor endowment, since by then there was little free or local about Harrow School.

We know that borough museums always have an area about famous residents.  Mrs Beeton, of Household Management fame, lived in Pinner, so she is recorded here.  But I thought much more interesting was the story of Daniel Dancer, the local 18th century miser, who slept on straw and ate sheep found dead in the fields, and left a derelict house with every cranny stuffed full of coins and treasury bills.  Of course, anyone who has read Our Mutual Friend knows about Dancer, because his was one of the lives which Noddy Boffin pretended to emulate when he was trying to develop a character as a skinflint

In several places, we came across projections of former residents, who described aspects of their lives.  One was the housekeeper to the Archbishops, who led us into an account of how things had been before the Thomas Cranmer handed the property over to Henry VIII

The Great Hall, no longer very 'great' because of alterations over the centuries, was the last part of the Manor House which we looked at, before crossing to the Granary, passing the pillory on the way.  The granary is the Education Area, but open to the public when no schools need it.  It is full of activities and puzzles, so we had a few moments of fun there


Finally, as we left, we past a splendid toposcope set in the ground, with useful distances:  Lambeth Palace would have been seven hours away by horse;  Bentley Priory is four seconds away by Second World War Spitfire;  the Bannister Stadium could be reached in 5.2 minutes if you run a sub-4 minute mile.

And then we left, well pleased with our visit, though the sunshine, and aromatic herbs planted in the raised beds certainly helped the mood.  And, appropriately for an area so changed by the coming of the railways, we headed back to Harrow and Wealdstone Station.