Friday, 8 December 2017

The London Mithraeum

 12 Walbrook, London EC4N 8AA

Thursday 7 December 2017

For the second week running, we have seen just what money can do for 'heritage'. Linda and I, accompanied by the person formerly know as 63 regular, visited the London Mithraeum, beneath the Bloomberg building.

The spacious entrance area is enhanced by three art works. Blind to the rays of the returning sun, by Isabel Nolan, is an interpretation of the key Mithraic symbol, the bull that the god slays. And around the wall is her tapestry (or possibly carpet, since it is tufted, though by whom is not clear). It's called Barely Perceptible Vibration of Everything, and is a response to the site.  We felt we could detect the curves of the river Walbrook, now buried beneath the building, as well as the fields which were once here, possibly the Tower of London.  It is certainly a vibrant and beautiful work.

The third art work is a  stunning wall displaying some of the thousands of artefacts found in the area by archeologists. What's that you say?  'Can't read the captions or see the detail?' Well, just borrow one of the tablets on offer, touch the item you are interested in and get a close up and a description.  We saw spear- and arrow- heads, writing wax-tablets, wooden patten-type shoes, buckles, harness brasses and lots more.

After a while, we were told that we could head downstairs, which we did, pausing only to take advantage of the handsome facilities. Above the taps was a sign which said 'towel, wave your hands here'.  And a roller towel emerged from behind the mirror.  Just as one wondered what would happen next, the towel was grabbed back into the wall.  Amazing.

The stairs down have a simplified form on time line to help you travel though the years, while giving you some events to focus on: the Queen's Coronation, the birth of the tube, the Norman conquest and so on. 

The stairs brought us to a large room, with sitting space and three interactive screens.  The emollient tones of Joanna Lumley told us some of the ideas that archeologists and historians have about the cult of Mithras.  Meanwhile, we looked at the screens about taurotony (the importance of the Bull in the religion;  the shape of the temple and its history; and the head of the God himself.  It seemed to us that it was probably similar to ,many mainly male organisations:  hierarchy with arcane names for the different ranks, initiation ceremonies, and possibly dressing up.  The Freemasons came to mind.  What is not clear is what they actually believed:  one suggestion is that it's a creation myth, with the blood of the bull providing the life force;  Mithras looks away as he slits the bull's throat:  perhaps he is making a sacrifice to the sun?  Rudyard Kipling, in his story The Church that was at Antioch, suggests a religion with much in common with Christianity. You can read the story by going to the link.

Then it was our turn to go down one more storey, to the temple itself.  At first it was dimly lit, then very dark, with mist swirling, and a certain amount of ritual shouting in Latin, purporting to be part of the worship.  There were shafts of light where the pillars had once been.

Then the lights came up and we had plenty of time to walk round the excavations themselves.  The central area was probably for the rituals, but may also have been for feasting and drinking. The two side aisles would have been for the different ranks of initiates to sit.

We then went back upstairs and were able to study the interactive screens again, to learn what the shouting was supposed to be about, but also lots of other interesting facts and guesses, including the titles of the different ranks

One programme showed where other Mithraic Temples have been found;  another described how and why the temple had been abandoned, reused as a Temple of Bacchus and then abandoned again.  We wondered if evidence of eating and particularly drinking might possibly have come from the Temple's Bacchic phase.  Since many depictions of Mithras include the signs of the Zodiac (our signs of the zodiac, that is, I had not known they were that old) it's thought that Mithras was closely linked with the heavens.

All in all, we had had a fascinating experience, and one that we hotly recommend to all. You can book your visit here. The fact that admission is free is of course a bonus.

But as we stepped out into the rain to go back to Bank Station, I could not avoid thinking of all the museums we have visited which don't have the benefit of the generous structure and production values of this splendid addition to the London museum scene.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Old Speech Room & Gallery

Harrow School
The Bursary
5 High St, Harrow
Thursday November 30 2017

Parts of today’s expedition felt quite nostalgic as we met at a very cold Baker Street Station (needing an agreed rendezvous for this multi-layered interchange) and took a newish swift Metropolitan Line train to Harrow on the Hill where all the lines divide/converge. The station staff recommended we took a bus so soon we were back in the familiar surroundings of Harrow Bus Station, now complete with a major bus countdown board so we could sprint to the  H 17, as ever a popular route, which delivered us to the crest of the hill, where this very famous public school stands proud. The Speech House is indicated by a brown sign.

 The gallery housed in a very imposing double fronted building atop a long flight of steps, was cosy after the cold journey and there are not many galleries which are carpeted, which this one is. The building was originally designed for the boys to practise their public speaking so there is a downstairs area suitable for talks and concerts and an upstairs gallery ready for hecklers. In its new role it is very proud that it has accredited museum status. The exhibits are on the underside of the gallery up the stairs and in the ‘overhang’. 

 The young woman on Reception, who was one of the permanent curatorial staff, was keen to tell us that what was on display was only a fraction of the collection. She was very enthusiastic about the gallery though today we seemed to be the only visitors. The collection also benefits from the similarly keen input of a few older pupils, presumably as part of their Art History modules. It has to be said that the standards of the displays must be a mark of the school’s wealth – in most schools the ‘archiving’ such as it is, is left to the History Department and a couple of shelves in a random cupboard.

This learning establishment has moved on from its original founder John Lyons leaving a legacy to educate seven local boys (and build a ten mile stretch of local road!) to one of the country’s more famous private schools. The accumulated wealth and privilege is visible in the museum.

Their most famous former pupils are Winston Churchill and Lord Byron, neither of whom shone academically. I suspect the museum alternate their ‘special exhibitions’ between these two and we visited when Byron was being foregrounded. To say he led a colourful life is an understatement but you can read about it briefly  here. The exhibits include sketches of several but by no means all the women in his life, including his daughters Augusta/Allegra and Ada, the latter better known as Ada Lovelace, whose life of serious study and sober application was the total opposite of the father she never knew. There is also his first watch (the one you get sent to school with but I suspect a pricier item in the early 19th century). The custodian advised us to visit St Mary’s Church across the road – formerly the school chapel – apparently Byron used to lie on the Peachey Stone and look at the sky thinking poetic and doubtless other adolescent thoughts…

If I were not careful this would become the Byron Blog, so on to others… Several of Churchill’s perfectly competent and pleasant watercolours are on the walls alongside portraits of other lesser known worthies. There is a Joseph Nollekens  bust of Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister to be successfully assassinated, and of course a Harrovian.  

A number of former pupils have donated their own collections – there are several pull-out drawers of pinned moths and butterflies, Admiral Codrington (Battle of Navarino – during the Napoleonic Wars) gave some silver and Henry Blackwall Harris an extensive collection of Chinese ceramics dating from the late 16th century onwards. It is generally known as kraakware , this being a corruption of the Portuguese ‘carrack’ namely the vessels that traded with the Far East. Basically the Chinese, as ever, produced ceramics for the export market of a different calibre to home wares; these were characterized by the designs in segments round the plates and with rather fragile rims, though there are some fine pieces.

Another oriental collection was displayed downstairs – Japanese prints from the Hiroshige series of ’53 Stations on the Tokaido Road’ that some-one has uploaded to Youtube
There are also portraits of kabuki actors performing roles in the ‘Tales of Genji’.

Upstairs some items from Harrow School’s own archive are displayed – the inevitable paintings and score cards form the annual Eton v Harrow Cricket Match, photos of various mainly Shakespearean    productions and accounts of the war, including some ARP watching.  Of the 451 pupils on roll in 1939 43 died in active service…..

In order to give a more modern injection into the collections the curators have been round to speak with members of staff (‘Masters’ regardless of gender) and asked them to lend and describe the relevance of an artefact for them. The range is enormous – two have included memorabilia from their own families who served in World Wars I &II, others are more eclectic. These include an Irish club Rugby shirt ‘cut’ from the player who needed a year of rehabilitation following a serious sports injury, some soft toys, a four generation Christening robe, a Led Zeppelin concert programme and what our family call a cheese sniggler, namely a cheese slicer beloved in the Scandinavian countries for paring cheese for crispbreads, now of course available in most kitchen stores but part of this person’s heritage.

The gallery also includes a small browsing library of Art Books, a good range of postcards and some pamphlets so altogether a very professional experience. If they do not already know it the pupils should consider themselves privileged to have such an on-site collection though it is also open to the public.  

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Honeywood Museum

Carshalton, SM5 3NX

Thursday 16 November 2017

After major South Kensington Museums two weeks running, it was a pleasure to visit Sutton's Heritage Centre in its attractive listed building and its even more attractive setting.

Carshalton is very easy to get to, whether from St Pancras or one of the stops en route, and in fact Linda and I met when she boarded 'my' train at Tulse Hill.  

Then it's a short walk to the lovely ponds, and past the handsome War memorial to reach the House. The number of seagulls, as well as other water birds on the ponds was remarkable: we reminded each other that we had seen the scary Hitchcock film many years ago, and so viewed large numbers of birds somewhat askance. 

We admired the enormous London plane tree, whose girth suggests that it is at least two hundred years old.

Once inside the building, there were many pleasant surprises awaiting us. One room's wall was covered with a splendid poem in rhyming couplets about the pleasures of Carshalton.  
The poet was a patient at the hospital for incurables of whom nothing more than that is known, but his poem is entertaining and informative. There are descriptions of the many pubs, and of the water of the Wandle that pours and splutters everywhere, making the village a place of gutters. He was clearly writing at the time that Dickens was serialising Little Dorrit from a house nearby. He says that he doesn't 'care much for it' because there are too many characters!

He also mentions 'a station for peelers', reminding us that the Police force was about 20 years old at the time of his writing.  

The same room contained the Beadle's Hat and a ceramic bowl displaying a village cricket match.

The works of two local artists adorn some of the walls:  William Tatton White and Winifred Madder both wanted to remind people of the country feel of the place as the railways, tram and commuter dwellings encroached.

We entered a large reception room, overlooking the modest garden.  Here we found the dressing-up clothes which we have come to expect wherever we go, but also cases of the most wonderful wooden models of the delivery vehicles of the past:  the ancestors of Deliveroo, Uber-eat and Ocado. They included a removals van, with the crates and trunks half stacked and the coal, milk, greengrocer and bread vans. There were public service vehicles as well.  

And then in one corner was a tea set, complete with cake stand, also of wood: we were charmed!  We think the models were made by a Mr Clark of Sutton, but if he has a website, I can't find it.  They are lovely, and worth visiting the museum for on their own.

The walls were covered with photos of the streets as they were, and of the industries which lined the banks of the Wandle, including the snuff mill and the iron and paper works.

Many large houses were built in this rural spot, mostly by nouveau riche London merchants: the museum is in one of them, and St Philomena's school occupies another, but several were demolished to make space for more modest housing.

The history of the house was outlined for visitors as well. It changed hands often, until the 1990s when Sutton Council took it over and began the process of converting it.  One of the families, the Kirks, had enlarged the house considerably in the 1880s.

This meant that we went down a few steps and then back up again, passing an area of possibly original wall from the 17th century, as well as rather a handsome clock, before reaching the area which had the bathroom and pretty lavatory, as well as a bedroom.  Here we saw some more charming toys, including a handsome miniature kitchen range and small washing equipment for some dolls' house servants to use.
The only area which we found a little strange was a shelf with a few fossils, and Brownie box camera and a small statuette of Parvati.  We thought this might be the Community's 'bring your own treasures' area, but it did not detain us long.
Next we came to the room where the World Wars and their impact on the area were explained.  A range of objects and leaflets were arranged on a Morrison Shelter.  As well as information about the bombing raids which came too close for comfort, there was an account of having pancakes in early 1940 and. there being no lemons, using concentrated lemonade on them. Yuk...  
Honeywood House was the headquarters of the air raid precautions service for the area, as well as being the recreation centre for the wardens

Finally we learned about the impact of the railways;  Carshalton was late in  getting a station because local landowners were reluctant, but in due course the station, which Linda and I had used, was established, and commuters came to be the bulk of the residents.
We particularly enjoyed seeing those baords which used to be inserted and removed on the platforms before electronic displays became the norm

This is a charming museum, in a very pleasant setting, where information about the history of the area and life in the past is interestingly and attractively displayed:  and, as I said, so easy to get to!

You can check it out here.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Natural History Museum (2)

Cromwell Road
London SW7 5BD

Thursday November 9 2017

It’s nearly two years since we last visited the Natural History Museum and in many ways we were looking for some consolation, amongst what should be the jewels in our crown of National Museums, after our less than educational visit to the next door establishment of the Science Museum and, we were not disappointed.

We are both old enough to remember when the Museum of Geology was a separate institution, with a separate entrance, but since he end of the 1980s it has been part of the Natural History Museum, now incorporated into what is known as the Red Zone. Unlike the grandeur of the Victorian halls of the Dinosaur/Whale bits of the institution, Geology is still housed in its no less spacious 1930s galleries and that is where we started our visit today.

We enjoyed the entrance foyer to this part where star exhibits were placed in the wall alongside a series of ‘phrases and sayings’ using stones and minerals as metaphors or comparisons… so ‘good as gold’ ‘hard as nails’ ‘tough as steel’ ‘feet of clay’.
You then enter a broad corridor with exhibits on both sides.

The different rock formations are clearly explained with different examples of each – sedimentary (settled deposits a bit like solid mud) and igneous (formed by volcanic or explosive core forces) and metamorphic – roughly speaking a combination of the other types put under pressure so they sort of fold. Apologies for the totally non-scientific and probably incorrect summary but there is text which both explains it (rock formation) simply and goes into more detail. 

From there it goes onto explain crystals and how they form within the rocks and here the displays are wonderful. There is one showing that when you break/drop certain minerals or stones they will shatter into the same shape bits, as opposed to smashing a tea cup, which shatters randomly. 

We have to give credit to the original collectors who in the spirit of the Victorian plant hunters and animal collectors went round collecting rocks, noting from where they came and in some cases naming them. Not surprisingly these early collectors were largely men with enough of a private income to pursue their interests but several gave their annotated collections to the Museum which is now the richer for their work.

To say we drooled might be an overstatement but there are ranks of display cases full of the most beautiful gem stones showing how they would have appeared as the crystals in the stones and rocks and how they then looked once polished and mounted. The finished gems are shown on hat pins so one is not distracted by the settings (you can tell I am a jeweller’s   daughter) and can wonder at the skill of the miners – never an easy job and exploited everywhere – to see what can be made from a stone…

The range of gems and colours is a true delight. Some resemble fronded coral others slices of bacon – the range is enormous. 

On from there we were told about the usefulness of many of the elements presented in their unrefined forms. This ranged from many decorative marbles used for statuary or impressive table tops, clay which forms the basis of much pottery. Slate is a native stone used usefully for tiling (there were some question and answer boards inviting you to choose different materials for different functions) and of course while marble makes excellent   floors it would be hopelessly heavy for tiles and roofs where slate fits the bill. There was a section showing how very small amounts (‘'rare earth elements'  are used for technology components though in fact they are not as rare as all that. There is quite a lot of space allocated to asbestos which technically is a fibrous silicate, and looks both pretty and very tactile – soft light and downy. Unfortunately though it has wonderful properties of insulation and fire proofing it is also very dangerous and over the years many have died at every stage of its  manufacture, installation and destruction. 

There is of course a large section on the most common and practical use of the earth’s resources – namely as building materials.  In the UK we have long had access to a source for brick making and the Romans kindly left us with a recipe for cement to stick them together. And once you have cement you can go on to make concrete, which just about accounts for the rest of our urban structures….

We enjoyed this section of the natural History Museum very much as it reminded us clearly of the riches below the earth’s surface and how useful and attractive they have been to us, though there was little to say that at times man’s greed has led to exploitation of both labour and land…

Once in the Red Zone we descended in order to ascend the very dramatic escalator which takes you into the bright red glowing ‘core ‘of the earth. (Our photos do not do justice to this somewhat kitsch approach) and once through the outer layers of earth we came to the galleries which explain about the three interlinked but nevertheless separate elements  (in a non-Chemical  sense) which constitute the unstable nature of the earth – that is the Tectonic plates, earthquakes and volcanoes. All these three phenomena are very clearly explained with large print graphics and many photos from what can only be called ‘disasters’ of the last 100 years. Of course it’s all the subterranean activity has been going on for much longer and it was interesting to learn how explosions were linked to displeasing the gods. There was even a Japanese early warning system whereby brass balls fell into frogs’ open mouths thus indicating the likely direction for the impending earthquake! Here films come into their own and there is of course an earthquake simulator, which is pretty sobering though many children were approaching it rather as a fairground attraction…

This section is well visited and again there was the opportunity to handle some rock samples from volcanic episodes.

The Red Zone section felt very much as though they had conserved the best of the past with the plentiful rock collections but had updated much of it to make it relevant to modern day use and function.  

Apologies - photos not good due to poor light levels and what looks like earth tremors affecting focus....