The other KKK

On this weekend’s brief trip to London, I saw a couple of museum exhibitions, both small ones but both interesting. I’ll talk about the first one in another post, but the second was an exhibit on the KKK at the Whitechapel Gallery — no, not the Ku Klux Klan, but another bunch of robe enthusiasts, the Kibbo Kift Kindred.

These guys are an interesting bunch — pacifist Romantic types big into physical fitness, ceremony, ritual, Old-English-ish neologisms and having all kind of crazy modern-art badges and totems. I love these totems — 60 years later these guys would have been painting these designs on the shoulder pads of their Space Marines. You can read their history here.


Back in the 20s, the Kindred actually exhibited their stuff at the Whitechapel Gallery, so this is an interesting continuation. I think what really struck me about the whole thing was its amazing combination of crazy super-modern 20s design such as you might find on a Soviet propaganda poster with intentionally primitive-looking “tribal” stuff.

A couple of books on the subject came out last year:

That seems like the mass-market one; there was also a big tome called Intellectual Barbarians, but as far as I can see it’s not easy to find; even the gallery shop only had a display copy.

And then there’s this thing:

I have no idea.

Anyway, if you have the chance, I suggest you check it out. It’s a pretty small exhibit, but free and definitely interesting.

The other KKK

Still mad as hell about the War of the Spanish Succession

If you follow my gaming blog, you’ll know that I spent the weekend with my lovely wife in Barcelona, which was as beautiful and interesting as everyone always says it is.

In some ways, it reminded me of my trip to Budapest. If I’m in London or Paris or somewhere in the US or even Oslo or somewhere, I’m surrounded by monuments to a history that I’m reasonably, if imperfectly, aware of. But in Budapest I’d see some proud equestrian statue, walk up to it, see the name on it and be none the wiser.


I know a leetle bit more about Catalan history than Hungarian history, but only a little; my knowledge really ends in the high middle ages and then picks up again with glancing references in Patrick O’Brian novels, which I think we can all agree is not too great. I did recognise the statue of Ramon Berenguer III, and even correctly identified that he was not the guy I knew about, who was Ramon Berenguer I, although I did not know that dude had twin sons and named them Ramon Berenguer II and Berenguer Ramon II (well, OK, he didn’t include the II, but you know what I mean). Listen, Ramon Berenguer el Vell, I don’t want to tell you your business, but that is super confusing.

Anyway, this came into focus when I visited El Born Cultural Centre, once the site of a city market and now a display of the foundations of a neighbourhood knocked down to build fortifications after the Siege of Barcelona.


It was fascinating, but it revealed to me that I know pretty much nothing about the War of the Spanish Succession. In my head I just think of it as kind of the final step in that 17th-18th century transition that leads to France becoming Top Nation again. But of course that’s not what it means in Barcelona.

I wish I had taken a photograph of some of the placards describing the siege, because the only conclusion I could draw is that Barcelonans (is that a word?) are still pissed off about the War of the Spanish Succession. Obvious comparisons to other things that happened in the 18th century that people are still seething about suggest themselves, of course, but to me it was a valuable reminder of how much I still have to learn and how much the stuff I have to learn means to somebody somewhere.

So can anyone recommend a good beginner-level history of Spain? Would also accept history of Catalunya in particular.

Still mad as hell about the War of the Spanish Succession

Trip report: Ædwen’s brooch

So this past weekend my wife and I went to Ely to check out this new Aedwen’s Brooch exhibit. It’s an interesting thing: a late Anglo-Saxon disc brooch found in Sutton in the 17th century. It went missing for a bit, then surfaced in a private collection in the 50s and wound up in the British Museum. Now they’ve sent it to the local museum for a bit, which I think is rather a good idea. ps076851_l

So this is the brooch itself, although the image doesn’t give you a sense of the scale of the thing; it’s just under 15 cm across (nearly 6 inches).

The main notable thing about Ædwen’s brooch is that it has an inscription on the reverse — well, actually it has two! That’s how we know the owner’s name:


So not only is it an inscription; it’s a curse. That’s good value for money; everyone likes a good curse. And not only that, but the second inscription is a runic inscription that doesn’t make any damn sense. That’s not uncommon for runic inscriptions; it may be because by this date the runes were not generally understood and were just for looks (although to the modern eye they don’t look like much — and they’re on the reverse of the brooch) or it may be because they were thought to be magical in some way.

The “mystery” referred to is what this piece was doing in a hoard — and you can vote on what you think the answer was, using little replica Anglo-Danish coins!


As you can see, the boring but probably correct answer is well in the lead.

It’s a fascinating brooch, is what I’m saying, and they try to tie it in to helping people (particularly younger museum visitors) learn about the Anglo-Saxon period generally, although that’s not the focus of the museum as a whole.

As for the museum generally, it’s a good little local-history museum. It used to be a jail (so did the museum in Norwich Castle — seems like one of those things), and there’s a strange and humorous little diorama of prisoners arguing and/or repenting the night before a hanging — dummies and recorded dialogue and so on.

I did spot something a bit out-of-place in one display. Here’s an image of the Roman invasion of Britain:

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Now, in looking this up I learned that there actually is evidence for the manica in 1st-century AD Britain, but look at those guys on the right and the weapons they’re carrying. Do they look a bit … Dacian to anyone else?

Anyway, that’s a quibble. It’s an interesting brooch and I thought the exhibit was small but simple and enjoyable.

Trip report: Ædwen’s brooch

Mini trip report: San Francisco airport (really!)

There’s a museum in San Francisco International Airport, with exhibits all around the different terminals. A library too, but I gather it’s mostly history-of-aviation stuff and I didn’t go to that. The part of it that I visited was right between check-in and the security line for international departures. It’s not huge; about a dozen or so small cases. But it’s legit!

The exhibit on when we went was Egyptian Revival: an Everlasting Allurewhich is about, you guessed it, Egyptian Revival art. I’ve always been fascinated by the way popular culture interprets the past, as you’ll know if this isn’t the first post by me you’ve read (and if it is, welcome!), so this was really interesting. The exhibit covers a couple of different eras of fashionable Egyptian stuff, including the late 19th century and the post-King-Tut 20s, with some things being a little later. Is there a word for that kind of faux-Egyptian art, as though one were to say Chinoiserie? I have no idea.

Anyway, highlights included:

Scarab humidor -- eternal life for your cigars!
Scarab humidor — eternal life for your cigars!

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I never see Egyptian Revival stuff at vintage fairs or whatever, but maybe it’s because I’m not looking hard enough. Possibly someone’s missing a trick. Get on it, Etsy.

I think the attribution on this exhibit card is backward, but the cover looks amazing.
I think the attribution on this exhibit card is backward, but the cover looks amazing.
Not the Steve Martin one.
Not the Steve Martin one.
Because why not.
Because why not.
Hollywood history *and* popular occultism? Be still my heart.
Hollywood history *and* popular occultism? Be still my heart.
Your one-stop shop for making your house look like a tomb!
Your one-stop shop for making your house look like a tomb!
Cigarette cases, inkwells, and ... I forget.
Cigarette cases, inkwells, and … I forget.
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And of course bling.

2015-03-20 00.51.52So yeah! That was an exhibit that I would actually have gone to see at a museum, only free (which is not as universal in the US as it is here) and conveniently located between dropping off our bags and taking off our shoes. A fitting end to the journey.

Mini trip report: San Francisco airport (really!)

Trip report: Rengstorff house

Another historic house visit! This one is the Rengstorff House, the oldest house in Mountain View, California. Unlike the Ainsley House, this one was in use long after Henry Rengstorff and his family lived there. It was used as a rental property, damaged in a fire and abandoned for a while. So this is an exercise in restoration rather than preservation. The differences are pretty obvious, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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The building’s been restored to showcase both the history of the Rengstorff family and Mountain View in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The decor is nice: the wallpaper in particular is great.

There's a different local-nature-themed frieze pattern in each room.
There’s a different local-nature-themed frieze pattern in each room.

There are a few pieces of furniture from the original place, but mostly it’s all various different artefacts from the period, with displays about the specific history of Mountain View and the family (including Dave Brubeck, who turns out to be the original Rengstorff’s great-great-nephew). So the house is full of furniture and art and items that are from the era when Henry Rengstorff was living there, although not necessarily the actual items that were there. That’s the case for many if not most historic houses, I’d imagine. It does raise the old issue of the talismanic status of historic buildings — given that the Rengstorff House has been so completely renovated (and had things like public restrooms and a modern kitchen added), to what extent can we really say it’s the same house?

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“It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing.” It doesn’t sound good, I have to say.

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This was a brief post-lunch trip — free guided tours are available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays — but definitely an interesting one. I’ve always had this sort of prejudice that California history isn’t interesting, since it is definitionally post-medieval history and therefore sucks. But actually I’ve been finding these looks at the early modern society of familiar places really interesting. I’ve been driving along Rengstorff Avenue forever and never knew who Rengstorff himself was. It may be that if you’re not me, the idea of people transporting huge loads of grain around the narrow waterways that fringed the San Francisco Bay in “scow schooners” isn’t fascinating, but that sort of thing interests me, so hey.

It’s almost time to leave California, but I’ve got a load of books and other materials acquired here that should give me a few additional blog posts for the coming week or two. After that, things may get a little more sporadic, but hopefully I won’t go back to my infrequent posting schedule of earlier months.

Trip report: Rengstorff house

Trip report: Sensual Splendor at the Cantor Arts Center

It’s not that I think art museums don’t usually do a good job displaying medieval stuff, it’s just that they tend not to focus on the things I’m interested in. So when I saw that medieval religious artefacts were on display at the Cantor Arts Center, I went mainly out of curiosity. But actually I was pleasantly surprised!


So the focus is on medieval art as a sensual experience, and the exhibit certainly lives up to that idea, at least partly. The whole thing is done in an environment of darkened reverence; the icon at the front has a row of little LED candles in front of it to give its gold the appropriate lustre.


There’s haunting churchy music and even incense to sniff, and it’s all there to remind you that, in the words of the explanatory text, these things were viewed in terms of “privileged liveliness” rather than lifelikeness. That’s a really good and important point — these things were not “works of art,” but were meant to be experienced as part of a particular environment. Of course, you can’t recreate that environment in a modern museum, and even if such a thing were possible, that environment would differ a lot from place to place and time to time. But it’s still a very valuable thing to do.

My one quibble with this exhibit is that the curators appear to have a funny idea of what “medieval” means. Something from the 3rd century? Not medieval. Something from the 18th century? Not medieval. Just being Russian doesn’t mean that it’s old. But there are some good medieval pieces:

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So overall I thought that was pretty good! It’s very small, but then it’s only one small part of a much larger museum. My wife and I explored the rest of the place, particularly enjoying the exhibit of female photographers from Iran and the Arab world. But the highlight of the rest of the place for me was the bit about the Stanford family. I had not known that Leland Stanford, Jr — who died at 15 and inspired his family to found the university and so on — was a keen antiquarian. In fact, in the weeks before his death he met Heinrich Schliemann and he was intending to found an archaeology museum in San Francisco, which is pretty good for a teenager.

Oh, also, the Stanfords owned a “Megalethoscope,” which apparently is a thing that allows you to look at photographs?


Or destroy all the civilised planets. I forget which.

Trip report: Sensual Splendor at the Cantor Arts Center

Trip report: Campbell, California

The goal of treating the place I’m from as though I were a tourist continues! The most recent stop on this itinerary was the Campbell Historical Museum, located in the old firehouse in Historic Downtown Campbell (TM), together with the nearby Ainsley House, former retirement residence of fruit canning magnate J. C. Ainsley. I lived in Campbell for a year and never went to either of these places — I couldn’t even have told you what the Ainsley house was, despite having been in the adjacent Campbell Public Library at least once a week every week I lived there.

The Historical Museum is titchy!
It has recreated grocery store shelves!
And a 1921 electric car!
And a cool Oddfellow’s Hall door with a staring divine eye!



Caaaaaaanned gooooods!
Caaaaaaanned gooooods!

It’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s in Campbell. It’s basically one big room, and it costs $2 to go in, which is 1/3 less than the Pez museum. Clearly a key point for the economy-minded California history enthusiast. It’s mainly aimed at helping young people appreciate what life was like in old-timey Campbell, so there’s a lot of emphasis on domestic life and also the economics and technology of fruit growing, drying and canning.

The Ainsley houses costs $6 per adult (about £4), which includes a fact-filled guided tour. Our docent was really friendly and knowledgeable.

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The roof of the house is supposed to look like a thatched roof, but with shingles. It’s completely bizarre looking and was recently recreated at the cost of $250,000.
The paneling in the foyer is awesome, as are the pointy arches. It’s all very arts-and-crafts-y.
Life was good in the fruit-canning tycoon world.
The clanking machinery for this refrigerator was down in the basement to minimise noise. This was a pretty early refrigerator (as opposed to an icebox).


The maid’s quarters.
Apparently one of the grandchildren got a little enthusiastic while making a fire.
I really like this -- this is Ainsley's radio, on which he pencilled in the positions for his favourite radio stations.
I really like this — this is Ainsley’s radio, on which he pencilled in the positions for his favourite radio stations.
The pointed arches are even in the bathroom.

The house is so well-preserved (it really is in remarkable shape) because the Ainsleys only lived in it for a short time; after he died in ’37, she moved out and died shortly thereafter, and so the house remained in the family but wasn’t inhabited. That’s how you want to keep your historical houses historic. There are a few reconstructed bits and pieces, but quite a lot of it is original and the guide is good about pointing out which is which.

In any event, there’s a heady vibe of nostalgia around the Ainsley house, the kind of thing that makes you want to be the sort of person who wears high collars and gazes nobly into the middle distance, contemplating his many hard-won achievements. Kind of boringly, though. If I had a fruit-canning fortune I like to think that I’d do all the paternalistic things that Ainsley did for his employers, with the housing and the child care and so on, but after that I think I could find something more fun to do than fish and play golf. Of course, maybe they don’t mention the booze-fuelled orgies in the guided tour.

Anyway, it’s an odd and splendid house, and it’s even more odd and splendid that they actually picked the thing up in one piece and moved it to its present site; there’s a video of that in the visitor’s centre and it’s really impressive.

Trip report: Campbell, California