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.

 

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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

Trip report: Discarded History

Seems like ages since I’ve done one of these, doesn’t it?

The little exhibition space attached to the Cambridge University Library doesn’t seem to get a huge number of visitors; it’s mainly people who are already visiting the library, I think. I understand why: it’s not very big and it’s not really near anything else. But that’s kind of a shame, because every time I’ve been there they have good exhibits.

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Today I was at the library returning some books, and since I had half an hour to spare before a tutoring session I decided to see what was on downstairs. I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit currently there (until 28 October) is of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, and it’s fascinating. This collection of hundreds of thousands of Jewish manuscripts accumulated over centuries in a genizah, which is a special storeroom where worn-out manuscripts are kept, sometimes in preparation for being buried in a cemetery. These ones weren’t buried, though; they just piled up in the synagogue storage for centuries until being brought to the UK in the 19th century.

Now, the original scholars who identified and collected these texts were interested in their religious content, but that’s not what this focuses on. There are appeals for charity, prenuptial agreements, lists of brides’ dowries, letters, government documents, school exercises, doodles, cheques, family letters, medical recipes, good luck charms and lots of other documents relating to the daily life of the Jewish community in medieval Cairo and elsewhere. Some of them show the Jewish community being mistreated by the Muslim authorities or by the crusaders — Jews from the community of Ascalon are trying to raise money to ransom prisoners taken by the Franks, for instance — but others depict a society in which Muslims, Christians and Jews are coexisting peacefully if sometimes uneasily.

Text-based exhibits are interesting, aren’t they? I mean, I don’t read Hebrew, let alone Hebrew on restored medieval documents. These things could have been napkins for all the difference it makes to me. Yet I found the stories they revealed much more compelling for being in the presence of the original documents.

I think my favourite story from the exhibit was that of Karima al-Wuhsha, a wealthy Jewish businesswoman who was having an affair with a married man. When she became pregnant, she was worried that he would deny paternity so she arranged for witnesses to catch them in the act. She got kicked out of her synagogue by scandalised neighbours, but documents attest to the pious generosity shown in her will.

Anyway, it’s just a one-room exhibit, so you probably won’t go out of your way to see it, but if you ever do find yourself around the UL, it’s well worth stopping in.

Also, the free guide that you pick up from the rack by the door contains tons of source text rather than just pretty pictures. Recommended!

Trip report: Discarded History

Trip report: Anglesey Abbey

Anglesey Abbey, former country house of Lord Fairhaven, is one of those places near Cambridge that I’ve never been to because it’s not easy to get to on public transport. But with my wife’s family visiting, we thought it’d be nice to have a look at the house, take a stroll around the grounds, etc.

I don’t know why, but I have never been much of a stately-homes guy, despite the fact that places like Anglesey Abbey have lots of the stuff that I like about historic material culture.

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Medieval things being reused as later things!

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Desk envy!

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Ephemera!

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Library envy!

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Henry IV!

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And the ever-popular thief-proof door.

Well-informed staff were on hand to answer questions and the house wasn’t too skewed in favour of imagining the luxurious life of Lord Fairhaven. The recommended tour also takes you through the kitchens and so on (where people were making cake according to period recipes) and the little imagine yourself notes on the room guides exhort you to imagine yourself not only as the people who lived in the house but as their staff, although there wasn’t a note that said Imagine yourself as … the labouring poor, suffering through the bleak depths of the Great Depression while Lord Fairhaven and his idle brood lived in swinish luxury or anything.

I think my favourite thing was this:

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Ah, the last days of prewar elegance, when Britain’s elite would gather in the library, chatting about the hunt, sippin’ on gin and juice, laid back, with their minds on their money and their money on their minds.

Anyway, there are also gardens, and I understand that people like them, but I have never yet been too excited about plants in a place. There is also a second-hand bookshop, which has always been more my thing, and where I got some, er, second-hand books.

Trip report: Anglesey Abbey