Trip report: the Museum of Jurassic Technology

Among the many other reasons that it’s been quiet around here, I have been on holiday. Like most of our long holidays, this one saw us heading back to California to visit our family; unlike most, on this trip we got to spend some time in southern California. Despite having lived in California for a long time, I’ve never really spent any time in the southern part of the state other than a few trips to Disneyland, so this was nice.

As part of my visit to LA (well, technically, Culver City), I went with an old friend to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which I had often heard about. My memory is not perfect, so while I remembered that the museum existed and that I wanted to go to it, I didn’t really remember why.

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Inside, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is … Fortean in the best sense. You might consider it as an art exhibit in the genre of museum; that’s the conclusion that I eventually came to. It includes a mixture of real things that are strange, things that mix fact and fiction, and things that are completely fictitious. It plays with the sometimes erudite, sometimes simplistic language of museum presentations, and it delights in presenting things that would seem ridiculous if they weren’t completely true, like its exhibits on Russian space dogs or Athanasius Kircher.

I realise this isn’t a very helpful description, but I don’t really know how else to describe it. It does an amazing job of replicating the hushed, almost reverential tone of a museum and using that to illuminate the history that intertwines museums, personal collections and carnival sideshows while also just presenting some flat-out nonsense in complete straight-faced kayfabe.

Very gradually as you go through the museum, you start to realise that a lot of it is phony. Is it the fact that one of the historical figures it covers is represented by a photograph of Charles Fort? Is it the slight inaccuracies in the story of the fungus-controlled ant? You think you’re wise to this thing. But honestly, I think the goal of the museum is to make you think that something real is fake. You figure out that this whole theory of memory thing is fiction, and that makes you cocky. This Konstantin Tsiolkovsky character couldn’t possibly be real, you think to yourself.

And that’s how they get you.

People sometimes say about fabulous stories, especially those that pass themselves off as real, that they draw people’s attention to what is genuinely strange and wonderful in our world. In my experience, that’s seldom true, but here I think it actually works.

Also you can enjoy a nice cup of tea in a peaceful roof garden, which is nice.

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Trip report: the Museum of Jurassic Technology

Trip report: Scythians

On Friday the 5th I went into London to see the Scythians special exhibition at the British Museum. Going into this exhibit, I knew about as much about the Scythians as I think a relatively well-read non-specialist. I was familiar with some of the most famous finds and some of the various ancient textual references, but that’s about it.

I never feel like I can adequately talk about museum trip visits, because they’re so individual, so let me get away from narrative format and maybe just talk in list terms.

Good things: 

The thing you can always rely on with one of these big British Museum exhibits is the collection itself. You’re going to get a lot of real marquee-value items in the exhibit. Here, for instance, we got to see the actual Pazyryk chief, which is pretty cool — even if you don’t really learn more from seeing the thing in real life than you do from the same diagram drawing of the tattoos that’s in every archaeology textbook ever printed.

Context is well-presented. You get a good amount of information on cultures that came before and after the Scythians, and you get some stuff on the context of the collections from the Hermitage that make up much of the exhibit. It is kind of weird that a lot of this information is repeated several times in the early part of the exhibition.

The Scythians are pretty cool. You get lots of interesting artefacts, from weapons and horse trappings to hemp-seed hotbox tents, human remains, clothing and even a couple of little lumps of cheese. It’s a good range of stuff.

I have discovered it’s pronounced SIH-thee-uns and will never have to wonder again.

Bad things: 

One thing the exhibition did a lot was to create comparisons with Iranian, Chinese and Greek art of contemporary periods. It would have been nice to see some of those things in the exhibition as well.

The first half of the exhibition has a lot of “here is a gold ornament showing a panther attacking a deer. Here is a gold ornament showing a mythical predator attacking a deer. Here is a gold ornament showing a panther attacking a goat. I think panther fatigue set in, but then I got into the second area with the horse hats and hotboxes and things picked up again.

On a personal level, I always find these big crowd-drawing exhibitions tough. I went in the afternoon on a weekday, but that doesn’t matter to a tourist magnet like the British Museum (although I should probably not have waited until the last few weeks of the exhibition). Every cabinet basically had a continuous line of people in front of it, and it always feels like there isn’t really time to think or compare or do anything other than go “oh, interesting!” and then go on to the next thing. I am a big clumsy goof and I feel like a traffic obstacle at the best of times, so that didn’t help. So part of it is that honestly the experience of going to a marquee-value exhibition is not as enjoyable for me as it might be, largely for the same reasons that make me want to go to one. But that’s just me.

Overall:

It was good. In many ways, my frustrations stem from the fact that it was good and I wanted more of a chance to appreciate it. But I understand that there’s no Netflix for museum exhibits; they’re not going to bring it round to my house and let me watch it in my jammies. C’est la vie.

Trip report: Scythians

Trip report: Harryhausen at the Tate Britain

I was in London last weekend, and in the hours between arriving and going to the thing we were actually therefore, my wife and I swung by the Tate Britain to see the Ray Harryhausen exhibit. It isn’t a full-scale exhibition; it’s what’s called a “spotlight,” a little one-room exhibit, but if you’re in the area, it’s pretty great.

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One of the things I felt like the exhibit did well was go beyond just being a nostalgia trip to locating Harryhausen in his context. By showing art from his collection, as well as art from the Tate’s collection by painters who influenced him (especially John Martin), it situated his work in its tradition. Harryhausen was greatly influenced by 19th-century illustration and spectacular painting. These genres weren’t necessarily respected by critics at the time; they were thought to be unsubtle and focused on popular entertainment, a criticism Harryhausen’s work typically faced as well.

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Even if you’re just there for the nostalgia trip, though, it’s a pretty good one. 

Of course, that’s probably no surprise to you if you know more than the smidgen I know about art history. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the trajectory of adventure entertainment in our culture, partly as a result of my new podcast, Monster Man, which is all about the 1977 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.

That sounds like a tenuous link, maybe, but I really do think the Monster Manual shows a genre, or set of genres, on the brink of a transformation between the legacy of 19th-century adventure fiction and a new status as a distinct cultural entity. And when you look at these spectacular paintings of classical or Biblical scenes while the trailer for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger plays next to you, I think you can see something similar.

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Separated at birth? 
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Joseph Michael Gandy, Jupiter Pluvius, 1819

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Anyway, I thought it was fascinating. I don’t know that it’s worth making the trip to London for, not being huge, but if you’re in the area it’s definitely worth a look.

 

Trip report: Harryhausen at the Tate Britain

Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery

Last week I went to one of my favourite museums in Cambridge, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. My wife had noticed that there was an event that sounded fun, and we hadn’t been in a while, so off we went last Thursday night.

The topic was Fakes, Mistakes and Mystery at the Whipple, and it was about forgeries in the museum’s scientific instruments collection. It combined some additions to the collections with a really interesting and informative talk. The study of forgeries is really fascinating, and it’s particularly interesting to me that even within this sub-collection of what is already a pretty niche collection there are lots of different kinds of forgeries.

Items like these seem to be genuine phonies, so to speak. As it became clear that there was a market for antique scientific instruments, forgeries began to appear, some of them good enough to fool experts in what was then a pretty young field.

If you look behind the cylinder above, you’ll see a sundial. This is a different kind of fake: it’s a genuine sundial of the period it purports to be, but it has a prestigious manufacturer’s name on it even though it is definitely not from that maker. I missed whether this was a contemporary knockoff or a later addition trying to make money on the collector’s market.

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This Persian astrolabe looks very cool, but it is not an astrolabe; instead of the precisely-calculated star positions on the central dial, it just has a bunch of swoopy floral design. Objects like these were aimed at the tourist market. It’s a bit like the mall katana of the astronomical world. It isn’t really what it looks like, but that also isn’t really the point: it’s just going to hang on the wall and look pretty.

So we have intentional fakes, contemporary knockoffs and imitations, and real scientific instruments being sold as something they weren’t. One of the mysteries referred to in the title was the extent to which antique dealers were selling these to defraud. Like I said, antique scientific instruments was (and is?) a pretty niche field. It seems to have been not uncommon for instrument makers to create copies of classic devices just as a training exercise or for fun. Imagine that you have a collector who acquires one of these and knows what it is, or even the person who created it. That person then dies, and their collection passes to a beneficiary who lacks their expertise. It’s not hard to see how these replicas could be misidentified as the real deal.

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Anyway, it was an interesting event, and a fascinating look at the different factors that go into analysing museum collections. Plus there are lots of other good exhibits, including one about Charles Piazzi Smyth and his “pyramid inch.” And these:

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Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery

More from on the road

As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I took a trip to York and Durham. I’ve already written about going to the Yorkshire Museum to see their Vikings exhibit. While we were in Durham, we also dropped in to the museum in the Palace Green library.

We didn’t check out the main exhibit, but we did look at the archaeology gallery. It’s an archaeology gallery, for the most part. You know the drill: prehistory, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, etc., etc. But the really interesting thing about this one is the organising principle that runs through the display. It’s all about decay. There are lots of little sections that show how different materials decay and what they decay into. There’s even a cute decay mascot.

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It’s Mouldy the Mould Spore, the sensational new character of 2017!

I thought it was really interesting to see archaeology presented as all about the process of decay, which, in a sense, I suppose it is.

Also we bought a robot, which is a thing we do.

More from on the road

On the road

It’s been quiet around here lately, not because I’ve been doing nothing but because I have been busy. Last weekend, to celebrate our anniversary, my wife and I went back to revisit old haunts in Durham, although we stayed in York, it being easier to find a place on that busy weekend.

Anyway, I’m sure some of these things will come up over future posts, but today I wanted to talk about our visit to the Yorkshire Museum for their Vikings exhibit.

Some years ago I went to that fancy Vikings exhibit at the British Museum, and with all the respect in the world for the Yorkshire Museum, this was never going to equal that in scale. Still, I found it interesting.

Initially, I wasn’t too impressed. Perhaps it’s just that the exhibit is aimed at a slightly younger audience, which the British Museum one, with its slightly churchy atmosphere, definitely wasn’t, but for the first third or so I was feeling a little unmoved. Basically there was a lot of the same stuff you see in every exhibit about the early middle ages, and the Coppergate helmet, which is very nice indeed but not an exhibit all by itself.

But things turned around, pleasingly, and I found that the intro bit had been the least exciting — for me, but then, the intro bit is not usually for me. I was pleased by the way the process of discovery turned up in so many of the exhibits.

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Here’s the Gilling Sword, which is lovely, even if not technically a Viking artefact. I’m pleased that it was on display next to its Blue Peter badge!

It was nice to see various hoards and smaller artefacts. There were a couple of ordinary whetstones I found fascinating because I’m a weirdo.

I really liked the section on Vikings in popular culture, which included some Warhammer 40,000 models:

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Frivolous as that might sound, I actually think the Space Wolves are a pretty good example of how Vikings turn up in science fiction: they start as just regular folks with a slightly wolf-y gimmick, become full-on cartoon space vikings and then gradually turn into a more complex and nuanced culture, much as we might see the public perception of early medieval Scandinavians evolving over time but with a decade or so’s lag.

It was a fun exhibit, not huge but a good mix of things. I don’t know that I would have gone out of my way to see it, but I’m glad I got the chance to while I was in town.

On the road

Trip report: in search of the historical Amphibalus

If you know me, you will know that I have been fascinated with the engimatic Saint Amphibalus ever since someone (my MA supervisor, maybe) told me about him back when I was doing my MA. If you’re not familiar with Amphibalus, here’s the scoop:

Saint Alban is one of the most important British saints; I think he’s the oldest? If not, he’s close. He was (the story goes) a guy in Roman Britain who protected a priest fleeing from persecution. Observing the priest’s humble, self-sacrificing piety, Alban was moved, converted to Christianity and wound up getting martyred, as one does. In most of the early sources, the mysterious priest is just called “the priest.”

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In the 12th century, good old Geoffrey of Monmouth is writing The History of the Kings of Britain, and in it he gives the priest the name Saint Amphibalus. It’s amazingly unlikely that Geoffrey had access to some evidence about the guy’s real name, assuming he ever existed at all, but what we don’t know is whether he just made the name up or whether he was recording what people were calling the priest at the time. The name may be a mistranslation based on a word for “cloak” — there’s a bit in the story where Alban and the priest swap cloaks to help the priest evade capture, I guess?

About 40 years after Geoffrey, the abbey of Saint Albans discovered the body of the saint, presumably in an effort to kickstart a lucrative relic cult that would help them out of their financial difficulties. That kind of thing happened all the time in the middle ages. Some historians believe that the bones dug up and identified as Amphibalus belonged to a pagan Anglo-Saxon burial, which I think is speculative but not implausible.

Anyway, why do I mention this? I mention it because this past weekend I was in Saint Albans visiting family, and I got to go to the cathedral for the first time. Now, there’s a lot to write about about that cathedral, much more than I can really cover in this post: it’s got a lot of preserved 12th-century material! It reuses Roman stuff! It’s sited outside the Roman settlement on a cemetery location! Christina of Markyate! In short, it’s got all the things I love about a medieval cathedral.

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It’s got medieval wall paintings!

And it’s also got the shrine of Saint Amphibalus:

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As you can see, the shrine is pretty beat up, but that doesn’t mean that Amphibalus is no longer popular. Dear me, no! In fact, we happened to turn up during the festival that celebrates the feast day of Saint Alban, so we got to see some proper material expressions of popular piety in the form of the huge puppets and various costumes used during the procession.

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Here’s the saint himself.
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Here’s the executioner’s eyeballs, which pop out of his head to larn him for killing Saint Alban.
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And here’s Amphibalus looking quite cheerful!

I know it sounds like I’m making fun, but it’s actually nice to see Amphibalus still part of the life of the community. He may be made-up, or at least heavily embellished; indeed, he may be a combination of legend and pious fraud, but I’m awfully fond of him and I’m glad he’s still around.

Trip report: in search of the historical Amphibalus