Mirror Maze and Fountain Frolics

The youngest two Pictlings returned from their trip to Maine with their grandparents.  Then it was time for the oldest two to head off on their vacation with their grandparents.  They are visiting New Orleans and taking a cruise around the coasts of Mexico, Belize and Honduras.  Lucky ducks.  Mr Pict and I are, therefore, experiencing having only two children at home again.

We took a weekend trip into Philly to visit the Franklin Institute.  The older boys have become a bit lukewarm when it comes to return visits to the Franklin Institute so it made sense to grab the opportunity to just take the other two.  I have never seen the building so empty and quiet.  It was an absolute pleasure to wander around without the noise and the crowds, without having to wait for a turn on some piece of equipment.

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There is a special exhibition on at the moment that is all about numbers and patterns in nature.  The boys loved all of the interactive elements.  They were able to identify the same spirals, tessellations, and ratios in different photographic images, play with computer generated images of branching and the geometry in mountain ranges.  There was a metal casting of an ant nest that was beautiful and fascinating and a section of a beehive.  It was my kind of mathematics.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition was a mirror maze.  It was constructed from floor to ceiling mirror panels and LED light strips in the floor creating triangular shapes in the floor.  It was so much fun to wander around in it.  The maze had been cleverly crafted so that the different angles of the mirrors created optical illusions.  At one point, my youngest son was split in half on different sides of the corridor.  It was genuinely tricky to find our way around the maze too.  We hit many dead ends.  The dead ends, however, were also fun.  Pressure pads in the floor made screens appear in the mirror panels that informed us about patterns and repetitions in nature.  We went around the maze several times because it didn’t get boring at all.

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We then watched an IMAX movie about extreme weather.  The documentary was great and the IMAX screen made the photography even more immersive.  We could actually feel dwarfed by the glacier that was breaking into the sea and could feel the threat of the impending tornado.  After that, we asked the boys to select a few areas of the Franklin Institute that they were keen to visit on this trip.  The advantage of being members is that we don’t feel the pressure to do the whole museum from top to toe each time and can instead cherry pick.  We, therefore, visited the space section where they got to try on virtual reality headsets and touch another fragment of the meteor that came from Meteor Crater.  We also visited the Heart section where they enjoyed climbing around in the chambers of the heart and listen to the heartbeats of different creatures.  They also had fun in the electricity section, creating circuits by connecting hands and getting electrical shocks from a key.

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After the Franklin Institute we headed across the street to Logan Circle.  While I have walked and driven past it many times, this was our first visit to Logan Circle – also called Logan Square, confusingly enough.  It is basically a small park in the middle of a roundabout (traffic circle).  We read on a placard in the park that this was the site of the Great Sanitary Fair.  This was an 1864 event to raise funds for medicines for the Union troops.  Abraham Lincoln contributed by donating signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Apparently the public address he gave that day was the only one he delivered in Philadelphia.  At the centre of the circle is an impressive fountain, the Swann Memorial Fountain.  The Fountain was designed by Alexander Calder – the Philadelphia sculptor whose father designed City Hall and who was the father of Alexander Calder of the kinesthetic sculptures.  It features three massive figures each representing the rivers of the city – the Schuylkill, Wissahickon, and Delaware – and turtles, frogs, fish, and swans.  There are geysers spouting high up into the air.  It’s a pretty cool fountain.

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Of course, the kids didn’t give a stuff about all that history.  They were just interested in the water.  There were lots of people playing in the fountain, both wading and swimming, and my boys were keen to join in.  We were not sure if frolicking in the water was permitted.  There was no sign prohibiting entering the water, as is often the case with off-limits fountains, so we decided to let them get in.  It turns out that there was a brief ban on entering the fountain but it is now allowed so we were OK.  The boys loved wading around in the water and wandered all over the place.  I decided to join them, though I avoided getting as wet as they did.  They loved the spouting turtle and frog figures and had an absolute blast playing, splashing, and giggling.  Now I am keen to visit more of Philly’s fountains and public art.

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The Barnes Foundation

While the youngest two Pictlings were vacationing with their grandparents, Mr Pict and I took (dragged) the oldest two into Philadelphia to visit the Barnes Foundation.  Our 11 year old and I love art and love to visit art galleries whereas Mr Pict and the 14 year old tolerate art galleries.  Somehow we all ended up united in not much enjoying our experience of the Barnes Foundation.

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The Barnes Foundation is essentially the large art collection of one particular individual, a pharmaceutical tycoon named Albert Barnes.  He wanted his collection to be educational so opened it to students and gradually, over the decades and through much controversy, it became open to the public.  Numbers entering the galleries are limited so when we arrived we expected to be given a timed ticket but instead we were told we could go right on in.  We were simply lucky, however, as when we left there was a long line of people waiting to gain admission.  I actually like the idea of limiting numbers as I have had dire experiences in overcrowded art museums, including the Louvre.

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Barnes, it appears, was a bit of a control freak.  I get that because I am one too. It would seem that a condition of his collection being available for public access was that the items be displayed exactly as he stipulated.  Therefore, each room of the gallery is presented exactly as he wanted – with decorative iron work being displayed alongside the paintings and drawings – which means it is organised according to his taste rather than any sort of curation based on art history or chronology or theme.  I found this frustrating.  Usually I engage my children in art galleries by having them draw studies of what they are viewing.  They really enjoy doing that.  Alas, the Barnes Foundation does not permit drawing.  Therefore, desperately trying to engage my children in what they were seeing, I was trying to discuss the art work with them, drawing comparisons, looking for the stylistic flourishes and techniques that made it easy to identify which artist’s work we were looking at.  This was made incredibly difficult by the somewhat haphazard way the paintings were organised.  They were also, in my opinion, all hung too closely together so that no piece had breathing room.  The paintings were not labelled – since there was no wall space between them for a label – but there were handy diagrammatic maps available in each room.  We saw a plethora of Renoirs, Cezannes, and Matisses.  There were also works by Modigliani, Picasso, Degas, Seurat and Van Gogh.  All of these were artists familiar to the children from me teaching them History of Art a couple of summers ago.  They were also introduced to less familiar artists such as Chaim Soutine, Charles Demuth, and the sculptures of Lipchitz.

Impressive as the collection was for its content, our whole experience at the Barnes was of feeling frustrated, stressed, and hassled.  This was made a whole lot worse by overly officious guides and docents.  Each room had a line built into the wooden floor.  This line designated a point that bodies were not permitted to cross.  Of course, we had to step across the line in order to pass through a doorway.  The occasional portal contained a work of art but heaven forfend if one should pause between rooms to catch a glimpse of the art work in question because, of course, then we were between lines.  At one point, my 11 year old raised his hand to gesture slightly towards a painting we were discussing and a docent leapt up to push his hand back behind the line as if he was about to poke the painting.  I found it off putting but to my sons it crippled any enjoyment they were getting from looking at work by prominent artists.  Furthermore, when I wanted to ascend the staircase to the second floor, a guide who was conducting a tour and who had positioned her group at the bottom of the stairs, was incredibly rude to me for daring to interrupt her talk by walking between her and her group in order to access the stairs.  I was fizzing with frustration at that juncture.  We consequently made quick work of the second floor since we were becoming increasingly annoyed with the entire experience.  What kept us entertained was my 11 year old’s idea that we should pick a painting and make up a narrative about it, the more outlandish the better.  We were all thoroughly amused.  Of course, we drew tuts from a po-faced docent.  Time to depart.

Before we left, however, we popped into a small gallery space for a temporary exhibit.  We almost did not go in because the kids were so hacked off by that point.  We were all glad that we did, however.  The exhibition was about a series of works by an artist named Mohamed Bourouissa inspired by time he spent with a community of horse riders in North Philadelphia.  I had no idea there were people riding horses in Philly for a start but I also found the works themselves to be fascinating and thought-provoking, sculptures made out of old car parts with photographs printed on to them.  It was a really positive end to what had otherwise been a disappointing visit to the Barnes Foundation.

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The Mercer Museum

This summer, in addition to our recent road trip, my in-laws decided to take the Pictlings on vacation in pairs.  For the first time in over ten years, therefore, I was left with just two children to care for and keep busy.  The youngest two went off on their grandparent vacation first so I had the 11 and 14 year old at home.  I decided, therefore, to take them to explore a place none of us had visited: the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.

The Mercer Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and reflects his pursuits and hobbies.  He was a tile-maker, an avid collector, and an archaeologist and the museum showcases all of these interests.  The museum building is, in fact, one of his creations.  Mercer designed three poured concrete buildings, all in Doylestown: his Moravian Tile Works; his home, Fonthill; and the museum.  The building, therefore, is an exhibit in its own right and – in my opinion – it was the best thing about the museum.

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We started in a modern extension to the building where there was a special exhibition about one woman’s collection of quilts and a selection of marvelous dollhouses.  I have no ability with sewing and could never even dream of embarking on something like a quilt but I enjoyed seeing the variety of designs and styles.  All three of us liked the dollhouses for all the tiny details and the meticulous crafting of scaled household items.  Soon enough, however, it was time to enter the actual museum building and it was a wow moment to step out into the central area.  We were surrounded on all sides by spaces full of interesting collections but the real impact came from looking up.  The museum is six or seven floors (it gets confusing) and we could stand in that first atrium area and look up through all of the floors, up to where a collection of chairs were suspended from the ceiling, our eyes darting past buggies and boats and even a fire engine that were dangling from the walls.

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Walking around the Mercer Museum is like poking around in someone’s really organised attic. Each collection has its own designated nook within the space.  Mercer appears to have been interested in the tools, equipment, and workshops of a wide variety of trades so each display space was themed around some industry.  We saw, for example, a collection of hair combs made from tortoise shell along with the shells and the tools used to slice and carve them.  There was a room dedicated to shoemaking with a large collection of cobbler’s lasts hanging on one wall.  Another space was full of hats and hat-making equipment.  There was a woodworking shop, a blacksmith’s furnace, a room full of spindles and spinning wheels, medical and apothecary equipment, a huge collection of lanterns, musical instruments (my kids laughed when I said the word “hurdy gurdy” with my Scottish accent), moulds for making confectionery, whaling implements, and so much more.  I confess to being not very enthused by industrial history but I found this collection quite charming.  With it being organised the way it was, I could quickly skim and scan the collections that I was not fussed by – such as gunsmithing – and spend more time with the items I did find more engaging, such as the glassblowing workshop.

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Now, being honest, my sons were not really digging the museum.  They gave passing glances to most displays but were not overly interested in the contents or in hearing me tell them about domestic industries of times past.  They were, however, more interested in the large items on display.  Seeing a whaleboat up close gave them an appreciation for how dangerous and difficult the job of whaling was when sent out in a relatively small, narrow and shallow whaling boat into the midst of large sea mammals.  They also thought the Conestoga wagon and stagecoach were cool.  One narrow little entry way took us into an area that was set up to look like a general store and they found that pretty interesting, spotting familiar items in unfamiliar packaging.  Being macabre little souls (they take after me in that respect) they also liked seeing a set of gallows and implements linked to crime and punishment.  We also entertained ourselves with our usual museum quest to find the ugliest and/or most offensive items on display.  The various tobacco advert carvings easily won the contest.

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There was a dog theme running throughout the museum.  Apparently Mercer loved dogs, especially Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  We saw a statue of one on the way in and then, when we found ourselves in various children’s sections of the museum, there were a couple of cuddly dogs.  Best of all, however, were a set of paw prints, made by a dog named Rollo, imprinted into the concrete between two upper floors of the museum.  Finally, outside the museum, as we headed back to the car, we passed the grave markers for two pet pooches.

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For them and for me, however, the whole highlight of our visit was simply the building itself.  It was marvelously bonkers.  Each set of stairs brought us to another level lined with strange little nooks and crannies, there were weird doorways, steps that went up only to immediately go down again, and all manner of strangely shaped windows.  It was incredible to think that all of these shapes and forms and levels had been constructed by pouring concrete.  We really enjoyed the experience of wandering around and never quite knowing, despite having a map, where we were going to end up.  At one point, we took a staircase down to see a vast collection of stoveplates, entered an adjoining room showcasing tiles, and somehow found ourselves back in a room we had been in some time before and on a different floor altogether.  It made all three of us think of Hogwart’s Castle.  Thinking back to the dollhouses at the beginning of our visit, I could not help thinking about how much fun it would be to have unfettered access to the museum and play within its walls.  We will now have to visit Fonthill and the Moravian Tile Works some time.

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Mother’s Day in Batsto

 

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Trigger Warning: This post contains a single photo of a spider.

It was Mother’s Day last Sunday and, as my Mother’s Day treat, I wanted to go and explore somewhere new.  This Spring has been totally drecih –  a good Scots word for dreary.  It has been chilly, grey, and wet, and not very conducive to getting out and about.  Between the weather and a too busy schedule, I felt like I was getting cabin fever from not getting out and about and exploring.  So Mother’s Day was the perfect day for going for a wander somewhere new.  We chose to go to Batsto, an abandoned town in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.  I learned about the existence of Batsto from Richard Lewis’ wonderful photography blog.  Rich was actually kind enough to let me pick his brains about things to do and places to explore in the Pine Barrens.  My boys are good walkers with great stamina but we have learned from experience that they enjoy themselves a lot more and whine a lot less if we provide some sort of focus to our hikes, rambles, and wanderings.  I felt that exploring Batsto Village as a prelude to hiking a trail would be a great day out.

Our first port of call was the Visitor’s Center.  This was primarily so we could use the restroom after our drive from the Philly ‘burbs but it also provided a useful introduction to the history of the town.  Interpretative boards and exhibits informed us that Batsto was founded in the mid-18th Century – though the Lenni Lenape lived in the area before.  It was a chap named Charles Read who set up the first ironworks there, using the bog ore found in the area and trees from the woodland for the smelting furnaces.  That Batsto Iron Works changed hands a few times and had a boom period during the Revolutionary War as it provided a range of products, including munitions, to the Continental Army.  Then, in the mid-19th Century, as the iron works declined, Batsto became a glassworking area, particularly renowned for its production of window glass.  The village came under state ownership in the 1950s and the last resident left in the 1980s.

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A little bit of history absorbed, we ventured outdoors to begin our explorations.  We saw a pile of bog ore and the remains of a wooden ore boat, used to transport the raw ore from the lake.  We also saw the ice house where food provisions could be stored.  Huge chunks of ice would be cut from the lake and packed with saw dust inside the ice house so that the food could be stored there without it spoiling.  I am old enough to remember some people still having cold cupboards in their houses rather than refrigerators but it was a good opportunity to explain to my kids how things were done before electricity and the advent of domestic appliances.  Another outbuilding contained carriages, some of which looked like carcasses picked clean by carrion.  Other barns would have housed different farm animals.  In the wheelwright and blacksmith workshops, the many and various tools of the trade were on display.  I could almost imagine the blacksmith and wheelwright wandering in, picking up the equipment, and setting to work.

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The younger boys enjoyed playing inside the mule barn.  Unfortunately, rather than taking inspiration from the actual setting and playing a game of old-timey farmers, they decided to turn it into a horror game in which they had to stay steps ahead of some malevolent ghosts who were tracking them down.  There were some genuine shrieks when they found themselves squeezed into thickly webbed corners with spiders.  Thankfully no other visitors were within earshot at the time.  While they spooked each other, I took my time studying the Corn Crib.  I had never seen such an agricultural structure before and its strange shape really appealed to me.  It was as if a wonky pentagon shaped barn had had a tunnel bored through its centre.  This was where corn was stored and shucked.  The machinery that did so was powered by a water turbine attached to the adjacent Gristmill.  This was another building the boys enjoyed exploring because there were multiple accessible levels within it.  The basement layer was also thick with dusty grit which enabled them to scrawl spooky messages to each other – and any visitors who followed after us.

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In the middle of all of these agricultural and industrial buildings were a mansion and a general store.  I absolutely loved the architectural design of the mansion because it was so utterly crazy.  There were a variety of shapes and angles on every facet of the house.  There were also windows of every shape and style.  Maybe I liked it because it was quirky.  Maybe it was because it was the type of house I might end up drawing with no symmetry or organised pattern to the design.  I would love to take a tour of its interior some time.  We could go inside the general store which was fun.  The interior contained a display much like customers would have encountered upon entering the store.  I am a sucker for things being stored in little drawers and little pigeonholes.  I have fond memories of selecting penny sweeties (candy) from wooden drawers when I was wee which might be part of it.  I, therefore, particularly liked seeing the drawers of spices.  Mr Pict liked the veranda outside the general store.  It put him in mind of westerns.  I think he could imagine sitting in a rocking chair watching the world go by from that veranda.

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We took the path past the lake and a weir roaring with water.  This brought us to the area where the iron furnaces once stood and the site where the glassworks would have been.  Little or no trace remains of either.  The sawmill was still standing, however, and we could see how the trees from the surrounding woodland would have been turned into lumber products, including shingles for the exterior of houses.

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Just a little way off from the sawmill were all the remaining village houses.  These were houses, built in the early 19th Century, that occupied by the village workers.  A few of them were open so that we could go in and see the rooms and some mock ups of how they would have been furnished.  I always like to imagine how people would have lived in the past, being much more interested in social history than industrial history.

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Our intention had been to take one of the nature trails that leads off from Batsto.  However, the children were getting hungry which makes them grizzlier than bears.  We knew that setting out on a trek was inviting disaster that would start with grumbles and escalate to snarls.  We, therefore, determined that we would walk through the woods to the church that once served the people of Batsto and is still in service today for the local community.  Half way down the trail, however, we discovered that the path ahead was flooded with no obvious way around.  It had rained hard all day the previous day so this was not all together surprising but it was disappointing.  Mr Pict and I decided not to push our luck with the kids and their stomachs so, with a sigh, we turned around and headed back through the woods, through the village, and back to the car.

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Rich had recommended a few places to eat in the area so we headed to one of these.  I love to eat out for Mother’s Day as it means I don’t have to cook or clean.  I love it even more if the food is especially delicious.  The Vincetown Diner did not disappoint.  It had the relaxing, laid back atmosphere and spaciousness of a diner but the food was a step up from regular diner food (though I am actually a fan of diner food).  I had crab cakes with garlic mash and lemon aoli which was packed with flavour and stuffed me to the gunnels.  My eyes were bigger than my belly and had scanned the dessert case on the way to our seats so I still went ahead and ordered the chocolate volcano cake.  I was only able to eat one mouthful of it so I boxed it up and had it the next day.  Still scrumptious.

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We had a superb day out exploring the Pine Barrens.  We will likely return to Batsto again, maybe in a different season, and we would also like to explore more of the surrounding area and trek along some of the trails.  I also hope the dreary weather has ended now so that this can be the first of many weekend wanderings.  We have been cooped up for too long.

Wild in Cape May

In the Summer months, it seems like the entire of Philly and its suburbs decamps to the Jersey Shore.  I actually know plenty of people who also head to the coast at regular periods throughout the year.  It appears that the Jersey Shore is the destination of choice for most of our neighbours.  We, however, have only been a couple of times.  This is partly because I don’t like sand and partly because we are contrary besoms.  However, it is mostly because none of us find we can relax in crowded settings.  This is even more so in beach settings because of the experience of losing our youngest child on a crowded beach several years ago.  All of which preamble is to explain why it is, over three years since moving to America, we have only been to the Jersey Shore a couple of times.  Since we had an unseasonably nice day for February last weekend, we decided we should expand our explorations of New Jersey’s coastline and head to Cape May.

Suspecting the beach would still be chilly, we made the focus of our trip the Cape May County Zoo.  The zoo is free which appeals to my thrifty nature but had me concerned about the welfare standards.  Thankfully I was wrong to be cynical as the enclosures actually seemed well designed and considered.

We headed first to the reptile and amphibian house.  The kids and I always spend a lot of time in these areas at zoos so we wanted to prioritise having enough time there.  We were pleased that so many of the snakes, lizards, and frogs were on display in their tanks as quite often they are tucked away in little hollows and can barely be seen.  There were snakes large and small from places near and far; a variety of turtles, including one who was very crinkly and spiky looking; a large alligator; brightly coloured frogs and a chubby frog squashed in the corner of its tank; axolotls and newts; and an iguana riding on a tortoise’s back.

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With the exception of the tiger, which refused to put in an appearance, the mammals too were all out and about and easy for us to see.  My 9 year old was eager to see marsupials for some reason so was delighted to see wallabies lazing around in the sun, looking like they were watching Netflix on the sofa.  We also got to see a brace of black bears.  Aside from the baby black bear that ran across the road in front of us in West Virginia last summer, it was the closest any of us had been to a black bear since one of them was walking right along the fence line.  Its companion, meanwhile, was lying on its back with one leg up in the air against a fence.  In addition to seeing the lions, we heard the male roar.  It was an incredible sound, only the second time my kids have heard a real life lion roar, though the sight of the lions lolling around like large moggies was a bit less awe-inspiring.  There were also leopards – traditional and snow varieties – and a red panda, zebra, giraffes, ostriches, lemurs, and bison.

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We didn’t see all of the animals that inhabit the zoo (there are apparently over 250 species) but because admission was free we didn’t feel like we had to push things and see every last creature.  I would have kept going but the kids were rapidly escalating their hunger levels from peckish to rampagingly hangry so we decided to leave while the going was good and go in search of food.

After a very tasty sojourn in a Mediterranean diner, we headed for the actual shore.  It would have been cruel and unusual of us parents to take the kids to the Jersey Shore for the day and not actually let them anywhere near the beach.  The coast was decidedly chiller than even a short jaunt inland and the sky was darkening quickly but the kids were still determined to have fun.  We forget sometimes that these kids were used to playing on beaches year round on the west coast of Scotland and are pretty hardy and determined as a result.  They all kicked off their shoes within minutes and, while two of them did a sort of Chariots of Fire run along the sand, two of them lifted up their trouser legs to have a bit of a paddle in the Atlantic.  A bit of a paddle, however, turned into a wade and – before we could even issue a warning they would no doubt have ignored anyway – two of them ended up soaked.  Their answer was to just peel off their sodden trousers and continue playing in the surf.  Our youngest child was, therefore, frolicking in the sea with bare legs and a winter coat.  He looked hysterically ridiculous but he was having an absolute whale of a time.  Sometimes the boys just really need to be feral in the great outdoors.

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I couldn’t come to the coast and not see a lighthouse so our final destination for the day, as day slipped into night, was the Cape May Lighthouse.   The current lighthouse was built in 1859 and is the third incarnation of a lighthouse at that spot.  I guess third time was the charm.  I arrived too late to enter the lighthouse so I just had to content myself with looking at it.  Maybe some day I will return and force myself up the claustrophobic spiral staircase in order to see the view.

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Peddler’s Village

We had other plans for this weekend but between the murk and cold and my aches and pains, we decided at last minute to jettison them for something else.  We decided to go and explore Peddler’s Village because it afforded us a comfortable balance between fresh air and bursts of time spent indoors.

Peddler’s Village is essentially a shopping centre but one laid out like a small village rather than a strip mall.  The architecture is interesting and harks back to a bygone era and rural idyll but is, of course, completely faux.  I found it to be quaint and quiet and certainly preferable to the atmosphere of the average shopping mall.  It also presented us with the opportunity to pootle around in some independent retail stores as opposed to the same old chains.

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The first of these we visited was a cheese shop which tells you a lot about our family’s priorities.  I may be lactose intolerant but I am also an unrepentant cheesaholic.  I have given up all other forms of dairy except for cheese and clotted cream.  I take the hit of physical pain over the emotional pain of a life without cheese.  The cheese shop offered a wonderful array of delicious cheeses.  We all nibbled on samples and pressed our noses against the glass of the display case.  Imported and artisan cheeses aren’t cheap here in the US so we had to exercise self-restraint and limit ourselves to two wedges of cheese.  In the end we chose some Port Salut for reasons of nostalgia and a wonderfully tangy, mature cheddar that had been marinated and aged in balsamic vinegar.  On the subject of vinegars, the shop also sold bottles of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  I absolutely adored an orange and cranberry vinegar and even more so an amazing pomegranate infused one but I managed to leave the store without making a further purchase.

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The boys particularly enjoyed a store filled with geeky t-shirts and accessories and a toy store.  They spent ages in the toy store because it contained lots of items they had never seen in a chain toy store, despite the fact that most of those items were for a younger age group than them.  We also took them into an arcade where they enjoyed clambering on pieces of equipment and watching graphics.  Two of them decided to spend some money on playing a game but otherwise they weren’t really into it.  I have always hated arcades but Mr Pict has many happy childhood memories of playing in them.  Our sons seem to fall somewhere between our attitudes.

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There were lots of stores selling ceramics, housewares, a very tempting glassware shop, purveyors of jewellery and clothes.  I am not much of a shopper but I probably would have had more of a nose around in more stores had I not had the boys in tow.  Since there was nothing I needed or was looking for, I opted out of the stress and worry of taking kids into stores or listening to their whines as they were forced to wait outside for me, especially since by this juncture the boys were growing “hangry”.

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We left Peddler’s Village and crossed the river into New Jersey.  It had been ages since we had visited New Hope and Lambertville and we had never eaten there – discounting doughnuts and ice cream.  We choose to eat in the Lambertville Station and happily, despite being a party of six, there was only a brief wait for a table despite the place being very busy.  As its name suggests, the restaurant is a converted train station.  It’s interior was lovely with lots of wood and brass.  The Maitre’ d’s desk was what looked to be the old ticket booth.  We were seated in the area that had once been the platform which gave us a view over the canal and the streets outside.  The atmosphere was lovely, the staff were attentive, and the food was delicious.

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Since we were all stuffed full, we decided to get a spot of fresh air before getting back into the car and heading home.  We thought the boys would just have a bit of a wander on the shore line, watching the ducks and geese, but in the end they were there for ages, making up some game to entertain themselves, and we had to drag them into the car.  So the day might not have been remotely what we had planned but it was still a success.

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A Visit to the Mütter Museum

Mr Pict’s parents flew over the Atlantic to stay with us during the festive season.  As such, we had the opportunity for some babysitting so we left the kids with the grandparents so that we could head into Philadelphia for the day.  Time alone together as a couple is incredibly rare so what did we do with this brief period of child-free time?  We went to the Mütter Museum to look at medical specimens.  Ah the romance!

I have wanted to visit the Mütter Museum since we emigrated to the Philly area just over three years ago.  However, not being certain of how child-friendly it was, we had not been in a position to go.  I am definitely much more into medical oddities than Mr Pict is but he was happy to accompany me to the Museum and check it out.

The Mütter Museum is actually part of the College of Physicians and the original collection was compiled and donated by Dr Thomas Dent Mütter in order to serve as an education tool.  The collection is absolutely vast and apparently only 13% of it is on display at any one time.  This is no doubt in part because the building is actually pretty small by Museum standards.  One exhibition space is essentially just the mezzanine around a staircase, for instance.  For obvious reasons – these exhibits being the remains of individual human beings – photography is not permitted within the galleries.  I, therefore, decided I would take a sketchbook, pencil and fountain pen along with me so I sketched (which is permitted) as I wandered around.  The cramped spaces and the fact that the Museum was so busy made drawing quite awkward, primarily because I found it hard to find a spot that allowed me a good enough view to draw a specimen while not obscuring the views of others but also because ever so often people would gather around me to see what I was drawing and made me feel self-conscious since I was only rattling off rapid sketches.

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We started off on the aforementioned mezzanine level.  This was organised on a sort of Brothers Grimm theme, connecting medical conditions to some of the grotesque elements of their stories.  I thought that was quite an unexpected and interesting theme on which to curate the collection.  There were lots of desiccated limbs and the occasional head.  We read about dry samples – useful because medical students could actually handle them and information, things like blood vessels, could be written or drawn on them – and wet samples, the type stored in jars of liquid.  In addition to the actual human remains, there were casts and wax models of other medical anomalies.  Strangely enough, because these actually looked more human, given they were neither shrivelled or bloated by the preservation techniques, they were more disconcerting to look at than the actual human remains.  Probably the star attraction on this level were the slides of tissue taken from Einstein’s brain.  For me, the most interesting part of that particular exhibit wasn’t the tiny slivers of grey matter but the fact it highlighted the ethics of taking and keeping samples of human tissue.  Neither Einstein nor his next of kin had consented to having his brain removed and studied which means that ownership of any of his brain tissue surely violates moral codes if not medical ethics.  The case of Einstein’s brain is particularly captivating of course because of his fame and the fact his death was relatively recent.  The same moral debate, however, could be applied to probably the majority of specimens held by the Mütter Museum.  I very much doubt that most of the people whose bodies or parts are on display consented to be used for medical science and education.  This moral quandary added another layer of interest and engagement to our visit.

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Probably the most arresting display – for me at least – in the whole museum was a cabinet, the length of one wall, of scores of skulls.  Arranged in serried rows in glass cabinets, these skulls were the collection of Joseph Hyrtl, an anatomist from Vienna.  Apparently the idea of the collection was to demonstrate the variety evidenced in European anatomy, not eugenics or phrenology, and as such each skull was labelled to identify its origin.  What was disconcerting and somewhat unsettling about these labels was that it gave not just the nationality of the individual but in most cases their name, age, and cause of death.  It was impossible not to think of the lives behind these skulls, the stories that led to their deaths, the loved ones they left behind to mourn them.  In many cases, the deaths were violent ones – either execution or suicide – and so the tragedy was amplified.  There were teenagers, for example, who had committed suicide when they were discovered to have committed a theft and I found myself wondering what desperate straits had motivated the crime and what awful crises they must have experienced to feel that the only solution was death.  I found I could not just gloss over any single skull.  Each of them represented an individual person and I felt this quite powerful obligation to pay my respects to each of them, to acknowledge that each had existed.  It was weirdly emotive and I find it quite difficult to convey that mixture of fascination and poignancy.

Given he is a Civil War nerd, Mr Pict enjoyed a gallery devoted to the effects of that bloody conflict on human anatomy.  There were the famous photographs of skeletal remains being exhumed from battlefields in order to be interred in cemeteries and the photographs of legs and arms in the baskets of field hospitals but there were also bones containing bullets and shrapnel, intestines scarred from dysentery and preserved organs ravaged with other diseases that felled many soldiers.  The Mütter Museum houses a vast collection of books so another exhibition was dedicated to Vesalius, whose writings and drawings became some of the earliest medical textbooks.

The basement floor of the Museum is really where most of the “oddities” are.  This is the area of the museum that is really devoted to rare medical anomalies most of us won’t encounter in our lifetimes either because they are so rare or because medical advances would either prevent the conditions or would at least make them treatable.  Most challenging for Mr Pict and I were all the specimens of babies, both fetuses and newborns.  I imagine very few people would be unmoved by these tiny little bodies in jars or otherwise preserved.  However, because we have experienced pregnancy loss and had a stillborn son, these particular specimens were even more emotive for us and stirred up trauma and grief.  Mr Pict found it too difficult to spend much time in that area of the museum.  I found I could compartmentalise enough to have a read and a look and I even drew one of the conjoined twin skeletons.  It was definitely the most difficult part of the museum, however.

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I have an interest in the history of freakshows.  Among the most famous “freaks” were the conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker whose origins in what is now Thailand originated the term “Siamese Twins”.  The Mütter Museum possesses a death cast of Chang and Eng’s heads and torsos and their conjoined liver because the College of Physicians conducted the autopsy when the men died in the 1870s.  Those were interesting to see since I have read so much about Chang and Eng.  There were also some fascinating osteological specimens.  These include the tallest skeleton on exhibit in America, that of a man who stood at 7’6″ tall.  His remains were contrasted with those of a dwarf who had died in childbirth.  There is also the skeleton of a man named Harry Eastlack who succumbed to a condition called FOP which caused all of his issues to ossify.  He had actually donated his body to the collection to aid research into his medical condition and potentially benefit others.

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Mr Pict and I both found at least one thing each in the Mütter Museum that made us squeamish.  In common with many of the male visitors, the genital specimens made Mr Pict feel a little uncomfortable.  Among these was a plaster cast of a hugely swollen scrotum.  Every man I observed looking into that particular case appeared to wince.  For me it was the eyeballs.  One glass case contained row upon row of wax models of eyes suffering from various maladies, diseases and injuries.  Not much about the human body makes me squirm but I definitely do not like anything to do with eyeballs.  The last time I was prescribed eyedrops, all four children had to pin me down while Mr Pict dripped them into my eyes.  That is how much I detest anything to do with eyeballs.  I definitely felt decidedly queasy looking at all of those eyeballs.

Our trip to Philadelphia was not all body parts, however.  After our excursion to the Mütter Museum, we were (maybe somewhat peculiarly) ravenous so we went for lunch in a Mexican restaurant.  It was a definite treat to eat a delicious lunch without having to wrangle kids.  Great food while relaxing with wonderful company – uninterrupted – was the perfect end to a lovely and fascinating day out.

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