Museum of Natural History

Our 14 year old had some options for a Biology assignment. I was pretty keen on a project involving writing about unusual diseases that appear in our family history but he chose to undertake one that involved a trip to a Natural History Museum. There is one close to home, in Philadelphia, which would have been more straightforward. However, he requested that we take a trip to New York to visit the museum there, which we had visited as part of the boys’ first ever trip to NYC back in February of 2014.

We had not been to NYC for years so we decided it could form the basis of a fun day trip. We formulated a plan for the day that we had to throw away the evening before the trip when the 14 year old fell of his skateboard and badly sprained his ankle. Since he was still pleading to go and given we had already booked and paid for the admission tickets, we decided to forge ahead with the trip to the museum but to junk all of the other plans for the day.*

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One area of focus for the assignment was early humans so we headed to that section first. I took a DNA test a few years ago as a means of making contact with other family historians researching the same families. It has led to all sorts of interesting interactions but there was really nothing interesting about my DNA. It proved I was as boring genetically as I was on paper. The only unexpected find was that I have a smattering of Neanderthal DNA. Until then, I had not known that Neanderthal DNA can still be identified at detectable levels in contemporary humans. I guess now I know where my massive forehead comes from.

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There was a special exhibition about sharks so we decided to boost our tickets for entry to that gallery. You might recall that my 14 year old and I are a wee bit obsessed with sharks. I cannot say that we especially learned anything new about sharks but we appreciated the life size models as we could really grasp the scale of some of the less familiar sharks. We also had fun with the megalodon models.

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I am sure that many visitors to natural history museums spend a lot of time among the dinosaur fossils. While I am certainly no dino nerd, I have never outgrown that childhood fascination with these ancient beasts. One of the things my son was writing about in his assignment was fossil evidence of dinosaurs being feathered so we particularly honed in on the exhibits relevant to that topic. We also made sure to visit all of our favourite dinosaurs – mine is a triceratops in case you are interested. We visited the Ice Age mammals too. As much as I know it would be wholly unethical to do so, I do think it would be marvelous to resurrect mammoths from extinction.

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Other sections of the museum we visited included the Central American gallery and the meteorite and gem sections. You will observe our family tradition of taking photos of ourselves in the same poses as sculptures. My 16 year old loves sparkly shiny things so has always enjoyed that section and my husband is an astronomy geek so he loves getting up close to space rocks. He was especially enthralled by a case containing three chunks of meteor taken from the surface of the moon.

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Unfortunately the limping 14 year old was starting to feel the strain of his busted ankle so we could not keep forging on through all of the other areas of the museum. We felt satisfied that we had covered a lot of ground, however, so left feeling fulfilled.

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And now we need to return to NYC at some point soon to do all of the things we had planned on doing that day but didn’t manage to achieve.

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*The reason the 14 year old is in the majority of the photos is because they will be used to illustrate his assignment and not because he is more biddable than the others when it comes to having his photo taken.

Canada Trip #6 – Musee de la Civilisation

We were keen to do something educational in Quebec, really learn something about the history and culture of the place.  The Musee de la Civilisation was a mere hop, skip, and jump from our apartment so we headed there.  It’s a museum of history and anthropology which obviously has a particular focus on French Canada and the First Nations peoples.  It was, therefore, perfect for our purposes.  I suppose because I am more used to Victorian museum buildings so I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious this museum was and how the flow worked between sections.

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I enjoyed the exhibition on the history of French Canada.  It was presented in chronological order and I thought the artefacts were well-curated in order to illustrate that history and communicate something about the people of each period.  Lots of social history too which is my thing.  The kids really did not dig this section at all and did not especially engage but they are all old enough now that they could mill around at their own pace while their father and I took our time.

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What we all uniformly enjoyed was a special exhibition on the subject of poison.  We learned about poisons used for good and poisons used for malicious purposes and the presentation was very visual and interactive.  My macabre lot found it fascinating – though I suspect their highlight was seeing a bloke (hopefully an employee) reaching his bare arm and ungloved hand into a tank full of poisonous frogs.  As I have previously confided, I have an interest in the history of pandemics and that has led to a bit of an interest in medical history.  I, therefore, enjoyed all of the items that were about turning poisons into medicines – some of which were obviously of questionable merit (hello, mercury!) and a display case full of bezoars.  As someone who loves the macabre, I also liked the poisons that were used for detecting witches.  Mr Pict and two of our oldest sons are arachnophobes but they liked seeing a tarantula and a black widow.

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The next section we visited was a sort of maze full of games that were, I think, about using your senses to solve puzzles and messing around with optical illusions.  The boys especially enjoyed playing around with a mirror in which they could pretend to be dangling above skyscrapers and a maze that was absolutely devoid of light.  It was fun to find our way around using just our hands and it was even more fun to watch each other on the night vision cameras.

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The final section we went to was about prehistory.  I mean, what history museum is complete without some fossils?  I loved the way several exhibits were presented, with an audiovisual animation of a creature playing behind the glass case containing the relevant fossil.  My youngest – who is absolutely obsessed with cats – was delighted to find a mummified cat on display.

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It was a really good quality museum and a thoroughly pleasing way to spend a morning in Quebec.

Caribbean Cruise – Grand Turk

Our final destination of the cruise was Grand Turk, one of the Turks and Caicos Islands.  Two decades ago, Mr Pict had a job opportunity that would have taken us to live on Grand Turk for at least two years.  He declined for various reasons but I was curious to see what the island was like and to imagine what my life would have been like there.

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The ship docked at a beach resort area but we were eager to see something of the real Grand Turk, albeit from a completely skewed tourist perspective.  We, therefore, squeezed into a taxi and were whisked up the length of the narrow, flat island to the capital city, Cockburn Town.  The population of the whole of Grand Turk is under 4000 so it’s a compact city more akin to a village.  We spent some time perusing the stalls on Front Street and poking around on the beach – my kids found bits of coral, lobster body parts, and sun lounging dogs – and enjoying the view of the stunning turquoise water.

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Our goal for the day was the National Museum so we popped in there when it opened.  I am so often surprised by the quality of small, local museums or those dedicated to narrow interests.  This was the case with the Turks and Caicos National Museum.  The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable and they had really made the most of showcasing their exhibits, curating them in such a way that they told clear stories about the island.  The Museum is sited in the Guinep House, one of the oldest buildings on the island.  We learned that most of the timbers used in its construction were likely salvaged from shipwrecks, one of which was exposed so we could see it for ourselves.  I was rather charmed by this fact since one of my Shetland ancestors was imprisoned in the 1840s for pillaging from a shipwreck, another group of islands with very few trees.

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The ground floor of the museum was dedicated to showcasing its big ticket item: the finds from a wreck known as the Molasses Reef Wreck.  A caravel from the very early 16th Century, it is the oldest European ship excavated in the Americas.  While some like to claim that it could very well be Columbus’ ship Pinta (yup. him again), the museum staff were clear that identification has not been possible beyond stating the caravel was Spanish in origin and dated prior to 1520 at the latest.  It is possible, for instance, that is was a slave ship.  Regardless of its specific history, it was very cool to see the remains of such an old vessel.  We saw timbers that still had the wooden “nails” in them, various armaments, and a massive anchor.  A related exhibit illustrated how the ballast on the sea bed had been critical to identification and analysis and demonstrated how archaeologists had worked on the site.

Upstairs, we found an exhibit about the salt industry, the Fresnel lens of the island’s lighthouse, the story of an Irish helmet diver whose two brothers had drowned while diving, the culture of the indigenous Lucayans, and John Glenn’s landing in 1962 following his orbiting of the earth.

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Following the Museum, we returned to the resort bay.  My in-laws decided to relax on the ship but we Picts decided we would have a final beach day.  The kids played on the sand and in the surf with their dad while I listened to a podcast while lying on a shaded lounger.  That is the type of beach time I can compromise on.  Not a bad hurrah for the last shore day of our cruise.

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State Museum of Pennsylvania

Once a year, on the weekend closest to my birthday, I get to impose my choice of a day trip on the other five members of the Pict family and they are not allowed to complain or picket.  Last year, everyone had to accompany me to Edgar Allan Poe’s Philadelphia home and the year before that we had a thorough wander around Laurel Hill Cemetery.  This year, for multiple reasons, my choice was to visit the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn a bit more about the state we now call home and so it proved to be.

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We began in a gallery dedicated to Pennsylvania icons.  This was a clever way to curate an eclectic array of items from stuffed animals to vintage packaging to ephemera from various industries.  I actually had not known that mountain lions had ever roamed in Pennsylvania.  1871 was when the last cougar was killed in Pennsylvania, though the last eastern mountain lion was seen in Maine in 1938.  My oldest son, snarky teen that he is, had sarcastically grumped that he was really hoping to see a coal pick so I dragged him to a display about Pennsylvania’s history of coal mining to show him the pick.  He was nowhere near as enthusiastic as he had implied he would be.  My favourite section of the icons gallery was that dedicated to big name companies based in PA because I love vintage packaging.  There were old Heinz bottles, a Tastykake tin, a cardboard Hershey’s barrel that had once held Kisses, Crayola crayon cartons, and Hires root beer bottles.  I also saw packaging from companies that I had not known were PA based – Keebler, Peeps, Zippo lighters, slinky, and Planter’s peanuts.

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The reason I like vintage packaging is that I like old graphic design and commercial art and typography.  For that same reason, I enjoyed the special exhibition dedicated to war advertising.  In order to engage the kids in the idea of art as propaganda, we took turns adopting the poses depicted in the posters.  That was good fun as was the slogan “Can vegetables, fruit, and the Kaiser too”.  Nearby was a set of display cases with military items and a model of the battleship, USS Pennsylvania.

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I had read that the museum had not so long ago been very moribund but that it had been given a boost when it stopped being free and started charging (admission is reasonable, though we had free entry) so they could invest in improving their displays to better showcase their exhibits and so they could obtain new items.  One of these new purchases was very striking.  From a distance, it looked like a beautiful sculpture of dangling sparkles, like an extra long chandelier; close up, however, it was arresting to discover that the sparkles were little gems inside glassine bags and that each of these bags represented an opioid death just from within Pennsylvania and just in 2017.  It was staggering and to see this visual representation of all those tragedies.

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My husband was looking forward to the Civil War section, since that is one of his nerd categories, but he was disappointed because it was very much focused on the “home front” and the social history aspects of the conflict rather than the military or political history that enthuses him.  The kids and I, however, enjoyed it well enough.  Our youngest learned that he could have served as a drummer boy and the boys all got to try out stereoscopic viewfinders for the first time.  For my part, I was most struck by a display of items commemorating Gettysburg that were more like tourist trinkets than sombre reminders of a terrible, traumatic tragedy.  I found it difficult to imagine women in crinolines fanning their faces with fans depicting the battlefield at some society ball.  People can be so strange.  Mr Pict did, however, enjoy a later section in the Museum featuring Civil War items, including John Burns’ rifle.  The centrepiece of this gallery was an absolutely cast painting of the battle of Gettysburg by Peter Frederick Rothermel.  Mr Pict got really into it and explained all of the areas of action being portrayed on the canvas.  My eyes glazed over and my ears went numb.

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There was an aesthetically pleasing section of the museum that had been dressed up to look like a street from times past.  It contained things like an old trough with a pump, a general store, various shop windows, and trade workshops.  My youngest was actually creeped out by the sound effects in the woodworker’s workshop.  I learned something in that section too – summer kitchens.  I had no idea summer kitchens used to be a thing, an additional building or annex room built in a shaded space and with thick stone walls so as to keep everything cool and, therefore, safely hygienic and to stop the rest of the house getting warm from the hot activities of cooking in the days before refrigeration and air conditioning.  I was aware of kitchen outbuildings only in the context of enslaved people working in them on plantations so it was new information to me that houses in various social strata had once had these.  My favourite item in this section, however, was a simple tin advertising sign that read “Pepo Worm Syrup”.  I was simply tickled by the name plus I find parasites to be fascinating (probably as an offshoot of my keen interest in pandemics).

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A trip up the escalator took us to a section largely dedicated to forms of transport.  I do love the shapes of old stagecoaches and conestoga wagons but I am otherwise not that interested in vintage vehicles.  Nor are my husband or children so we were able to whip through this section at a brisk pace.  The same space also had displays, exhibits, and information about various industries of Pennsylvania such as milling of grain or textiles.  Again, industrial history is not my bag so we moved quickly.  My husband, however, did spend a bit of time in a section about the Pennsylvania Turnpike just because he has a connection, through his employment, to the turnpike.  It was actually a really nicely presented area and probably one that had some recent investment of funds and time.  We all had a good laugh when we happened upon a record of the song “Pennsylvania Turnpike, I love you” by Dick Todd and the Appalachian Wildcats and a button that let us listen to the track.  It was a hoot.

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The top tier of the museum was like stepping through a portal in time to my childhood as it was all of the things I remember loving about museum visits as a kid: anthropology, dinosaurs, taxidermy, and dioramas on different scales.  I still get just as enthusiastic about these things as wee Laura did many birthdays ago.  The mannequins in the dioramas had that glossy look of mannequins from my late 1970s childhood but the dioramas themselves were well maintained and effective.  I liked the miniature dioramas best, however, because I like tiny wee fiddly things.  I was big into dinosaurs when I was a wee girl.  I was, therefore, definitely transported back to my childhood when it came to the fossils because I was very excited to see the skull of a gigantic fish and an entire mastodon skeleton, both found within Pennsylvania.  The dioramas of stuffed critters were also well done as they depicted small ecosystems instead of just being a plain old wolf among painted grass.  I learned that bison had once roamed in Pennsylvania but I also learned about how massively taxidermy techniques have improved.  An adjacent section was all about the process of preserving, stuffing, and displaying an animal carcass and seeing what the old mountain lion used to look like – stubby muzzled and cartoonish – demonstrated just how much techniques have improved.

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Phew!  This post is quite long enough but I will conclude it with a postscript.  The State Museum is opposite the State Capitol.  We had visited the State Capitol in 2015, though we didn’t take a formal tour, so this time we just did a circuit of the exterior.

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Then it was in the car and off to the second location for my birthday day trip ….

 

 

Road Trip 2018 #2 – House on the Rock

I am an incredibly obsessive planner when it comes to our vacations.  Mr Pict and I plot out our route and then I set to work researching the possible things to see and do along the way, drawing up detailed spreadsheets as I do so.  I usually generate 18 to 20 sides of paper per spreadsheet.  Sometimes I even colour code the spreadsheets and draw up corresponding colour coded maps.  Yes, I am a control freak and this degree of planning suits my way of being.  However, it also enables me to be flexible.  If I have a long list of possibilities then I can adapt to something unpredictable, such as bad weather or a child breaking an arm, move away from the thing we planned to do and find something else to place in its stead.  With all of that over-planning, therefore, it does not often happen that I stumble across something unexpected.  That, however, is precisely what happened on the second day of our road trip.

It had not remotely appeared on my research radar but, as soon as Mr Pict and I flicked through the pamphlet in our hotel lobby, we were smitten with the idea of visiting the House on the Rock.  We, therefore, binned the plan we had for the first half of the day and decided to go.  Mr Pict and I love history, unusual architecture, and eccentricity.  House on the Rock offered all three in abundance.  It reminded me of the Mercer Museum and the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, both of which I loved.  We trusted that the property would offer enough variety to engage our kids and set off.  We had not even entered the building and purchased our tickets before we were all smitten with the place.  The road into the property and the car park were lined with bonkers gigantic vase like sculptures covered with crawling dragons.

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House on the Rock was designed by a wealthy eccentric man with hermit inclinations named Alex Jordan.  An apocryphal story suggests that Jordan embarked on his building as a reaction against a snooty Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Taliesin is nearby.  It is definitely the case that Jordan’s design aesthetics don’t have much in common with those of the famed architect but it was an incredibly fun and fascinating building to explore.  As its name suggests, the house is perched on top of a rock.  Originally one dwelling, Jordan kept extending it so that it became an elaborate maze of a building stuffed to the brim with all manner of antiques, replicas, nick nacks, and random collections.

The original dwelling house itself was pretty weird.  There were narrow, twisting corridors opening up into living spaces, lots of rock walls, and cosy little nooks here and there.  The rooms were dark but the spaces seemed like they would be relaxing and comfortable to hang out in.  I could well imagine lying on one of the banquette sofas with a good book and a roaring fire.  There were beautiful Art Nouveau glass pieces, oriental style cabinets, and lovely metalwork.  There were also mechanical orchestras and string instruments playing music dotted throughout the property.  A big hit with the boys was the Infinity Room.  It juts out from the building and stretches for about 220 feet without having any supports beneath.  While it made me feel uneasy, the kids enjoyed the fact they could feel the room moving when they bounced.  They also liked the optical illusion of the room stretching out to the horizon.

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A Streets of Yesteryear section reminded we Potterphiles of Diagon Alley.  It was essentially a reproduction 19th Century street with store fronts filled with displays of collections.  I loved the coloured glass bottles glowing on the shelves of the pharmacy window while the kids loved the Sheriff’s office that included jars containing hands and a head on a desk.  There was also a massive and elaborate calliope at the end of the street.  Along with our tickets, we had been given tokens and the kids were able to use these to make some of the machines work.  Our youngest son popped a token into the calliope and was enthralled to see it working.

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The most incredible section had a maritime theme. The centre of the vast, tall room was dedicated to an absolutely massive model of a squid battling a whale.  It was completely kitsch but also utterly impressive.  By moving onto different levels of the room, we could take in the detail of different areas of the model but it was impossible to stand far enough back to take it all in.  It was completely bonkers and we loved it.  There was also an automaton octopus that played The Beatles’ ‘Octopus’ Garden’ when a token was popped in the slot.  Surrounding displays in the same room exhibited various maritime items, such as beautifully crafted model ships, scrimshaw, and a diving suit.

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Yet another room was dedicated to a huge carousel.  It apparently contains 269 carousel animals.  I did not count them but I noted all manner of zoological beasties and mythological critters.  There were also hundreds more carousel animals on the walls and ceilings and accompanying them were mannequins.  The whole effect was weird and creepy and a bit dizzifying.  Another smaller carousel featured dolls and it was definitely creepy to look at.

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There were still more collections of creepy dolls, Faberge eggs, dolls houses, circus models, cars – including one covered in ceramic tiles and a steam-powered hearse – a model of Titanic, the inner workings of a huge clock face, taxidermy, rooms full of gigantic musical dioramas, a full size mannequin orchestra, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse dangling from the ceiling, a diverse array of puppets, all manner of automata, and armour for an elephant.  House on the Rock was definitely not a case of “less is more” and proof that there can be “too much of a good thing”.  We reached a point, probably four fifths of the way through, when our brains just could not absorb any more and when we started to feel the effects of being over-stimulated.  Our 11 year old rounded a corner to see a whole room stuffed full of arms and militaria with no exit in sight and collapsed on the floor in protest.  We, therefore, rushed through the final section of the House, which felt a lot like navigating a maze, and were relieved to pop out into the fresh air, bright light, and tranquility of the Japanese garden.  Overwhelming though it was, the House on the Rock was an amazing place and we were certainly glad we had decided to ditch Plan A so we could visit.

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Chrysler Museum of Art

My in-laws had taken the Pictlings to visit the Chrysler Museum of Art while Mr Pict and I were still at home in Pennsylvania.  They, therefore, elected to stay at the vacation house and play on the beach while my husband and I went into Norfolk to visit the Museum.  The basis of the museum is the collection of Walter Chrysler, son of the car manufacturer, which he donated in the 1970s.  It’s an amazing and impressive collection housed in a wonderful space.  What is even more incredible is the fact that admission is free.  It was the absolute highlight of my Spring Break trip to Virginia.

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We started out in the glass galleries.  I am a massive fan of art glass.  I wish I could collect glass but I have kids and cats in addition to limited disposable income so I just have to admire and covet glass.  The collection was beautifully arranged with clear and informative labels.  Mr Pict liked the ancient glass, especially the Roman pieces.  One of these ancient pieces was signed by the maker, Ennion, in Greek.  I thought that was pretty remarkable, to actually be able to know the name of the glassmaker across all those centuries.  I also enjoyed seeing a harmonium with its glasses ready to make music, and a sugar bowl containing coins within bubbles of blown glass, glass pens, and a mustard dish in the form of a bull’s head.  My favourite area in the glass collection was dedicated to the Art Nouveau movement and contained a trove of wonderful pieces.  There were glowing stained glass windows, lustrous vases, intricately designed table lamps, and glass sculptures by the likes of Lalique.  I also loved the 20th Century and contemporary glass area.  There was a window designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Darwin D Martin house, a cabinet of glass curiosities by Steffen Dam that mimicked natural forms, a little glass house, and a wonderfully shimmering circle that really drew my eye no matter where I was in the room.

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After visiting the glass collection, it was time to go and see a demonstration of glass blowing.  We headed across the street to the studio space and took some seats in the front row.  We got to see one of the in-house glass artisans working with an intern under the instruction of the artist Stephen Paul Day.  The process was very complicated and was fascinating to watch.  It involved glass blowing, inserting ceramic sculptures into the glass, building up layers of glass gradually, attaching glass sculptures together, and a whole lot of other stuff besides.  It was a great demonstration since we got to see a number of skills and techniques and the woman who was narrating was very knowledgeable and engaging.  I certainly learned a great deal.

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We returned to the Museum to see some of the non-glass exhibits.  We were too short on time to visit every gallery so we elected to focus on the Impressionists and American Impressionists.  Each room was beautifully curated with every piece given room to breathe and be appreciated in isolation while also communicating with other exhibits in the room.  I was generally very taken with the Chrysler Museum, would have loved to have spent more time there, and would definitely return if I was in the area again.

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That evening we decided to do something together as a gang of eight.  We decided to go to the Commodore Theatre in Portsmouth, a restored Art Deco cinema.  The cinema itself was impressive with its 41 foot screen and incredible sound system.  The sound in particular was very immersive.  We were also seated in armchairs which made it very comfy and the whole place was so massive that we had ample space around us.  What made this cinema trip a new experience for we Picts, however, was that it was a dinner cinema.  We have some in our home area but have never been so this was a first time for us.  We could, therefore, order food and drinks which were delivered to our tables and then we could munch our way through the movie.  I did not actually eat as I was too full from lunch but the others did.  The food was standard junk food – pizza, nachos, chicken strips – but the kids all enjoyed the novelty of eating dinner in the cinema.  The movie we saw – Ready Player One – was pretty mediocre but was made more enjoyable and entertaining by the context.

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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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Road Trip 2017 #3 – La Brea Tar Pits

On our first full day in California, we headed – with the extended family – to the La Brea Tar Pits.  This was something I had always wanted to do in LA yet had never actually gotten around to doing so I was really looking forward to it.  The Tar Pits are actually free to visit but we paid for entry tickets so that we could also visit the on-site museum.  It is, therefore, a bit like visiting a very cool, unique public park.

The tar pits are a result of natural asphalt rising up from the earth and seeping through the surface.  These same tar pits have been bubbling and oozing in this way for millennia.  Back in prehistoric times, this gloopy tar would trap animals who got too close and found themselves stuck.  It was explained that while herbivores might become stuck, they would then be joined by carnivores who were opportunistically hoping to devour the trapped beasts but would then themselves become trapped.  In my mind, I envisaged a pyramid of Ice Age creatures all glued together with black sludge.  The black lakes of asphalt would then swallow these corpses down only to burp them back out again millennia later as fossils.  Because the oils would be absorbed into the bones, they acted as a preservative.  This means that not only has La Brea provided paleontologists with amazing finds of large mammal bones but it has also provided them with tiny fossils of rodent bones, plants, and seeds.

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While people were obviously aware of the tar pits during that whole time period – the local indigenous people using it to seal their boats and ranchers losing livestock in them – it was not until the early 20th Century that any effort was made to excavate the pits and record the fossil finds.  We were able to visit one such excavation pit and could also spectate as volunteers picked through sludge from barrels of tar searching for fossils.  I thought it was pretty cool to be visiting a site still being actively excavated and researched after a century.  Little me had considered being a paleontologist until I spent a day with a paleontologist and learned how much science was involved in the process.  I did not and still do not possess a scientifically wired mind.  I still find the whole subject fascinating though.

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What was great about the tar pits being in a park was that my feral kids could run around and climb to their heart’s content while we adults moved more slowly from pit to pit (which are safely fenced off) taking time to read the information boards and really look at things.  In one area, the tar was really bubbling.  Cousin J and I found ourselves staring, mesmerised by the continuous formation and popping of gloopy black bubbles on the shiny surface of the tar pond.  I think if I owned a tar pit, I would find it rather calming.  The kids meanwhile were rather enjoying clambering all over the full-size statues of giant sloths and other prehistoric critters.  They also found areas of grass where tar was seeping through the surface.  Immediately, all five kids would find sticks to poke into the tar.  If they thought they might pull out a mammoth femur, they were sadly disappointed.  Simply poking the sticks into the black sludge seemed to occupy and entertain them, however.

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One of the big features of the La Brea Tar Pits is a lake.  From a distance, it looks like an ordinary lake, albeit muddy and unappealing looking.  Up close, however, it is clear that the oil and asphalt beneath the surface are mixing with the water to create a slick and bubbling pool.  What was interesting to me was the way the slick scum of the surface would gather at the edge of the water, creating rippling rings.  There were models of adult mammoths and a baby at the shoreline to illustrate the “nature red in tooth and claw” point about creatures getting sucked in and mired in the tar, stuck there for eternity – or until a paleontologist scoops them out of a barrel millennia later at least.

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After a quick lunch of fresh fruit, we headed into the Museum.  The kids enjoyed a 3D movie about the tar pits, showing mammals getting gulped down as they wandered across the treacherous landscape.  For me, however, the highlight was getting to see so many reconstructed fossils from the site.  There was a colossal mammoth (if that isn’t a tautology), a giant sloth, prehistoric horses, sabretooths, a cave lion, birds, some sort of archaic bison, and dire wolves galore.  If memory serves (which it possibly doesn’t, not reliably anyway) then I think I read that more dire wolves have been discovered at La Brea than any other mammal.  This is perhaps because wolves hunt in packs so if one wolf ran into the tar then probably a whole lot of its chums did too.  There was a neat diorama showing dire wolves running as if on the hunt with the wolves depicted in different stages of reconstruction, from bare fossils to fur-covered, taxidermy style.  There was also a vast wall of brightly coloured, lit boxes each showcasing a single dire wolf skull.  While there, a museum docent let the littlest Pict touch the skulls of a coyote, a modern wolf, a fox, and a model of a dire wolf skull.

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I am so glad I finally made it to the La Brea tar pits.  It was a really cool and interesting place to spend a few hours in LA.

Robots and British Nosh

Having used the Franklin Institute as an indoor playground for a couple of years, last year we took a break from our membership so that we could return with renewed enthusiasm.  In retrospect, President’s Day was not the smartest choice for becoming members again and reintroducing the kids to the joys of science museums.  The place was absolutely jam-packed and every gallery and area was heaving with people. I do not do well in crowds at all – it’s like an instant recipe for stress and anxiety – but I also feel harassed by the behaviour of other people when places are so busy.  For example, there were way too many children pushing and shoving there way into taking turns with interactive exhibits.  My kids have a tendency to hang back and are too polite to challenge others who queue jump but they still get irked and frazzled by the rudeness of others and, of course, we then get the pleasure of dealing with our annoyed kids.  While the parents of the pushy-shovey kids seemed to be nowhere in the vicinity whenever their kids were misbehaving, conversely there were other parents who were attached like limpets to their kids which also made it nigh impossible to manoeuvre in some areas.  Imagine experiencing epic levels of irritation while trying to cheerfully engage children in science even though you are completely an Arts and Humanities person.  That was the experience I had in the Franklin Institute on Monday.

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While we stopped by our favourite sections and did what activities we could, we also visited a special exhibition called Robot Revolution.  It was, strangely enough, all about how modern robotic engineering is being applied to different aspects of life.  For instance, there was a large surgical apparatus and the woman standing next to me explained that her father had actually been operated on recently by just such a machine.  There were also robotic prosthetic limbs and robots designed to assess dangers in conflict zones.  There were, however, also robots playing soccer and one that could unicycle.  A big hit with my youngest son was a robotic seal pup, designed to provide therapeutic comfort to people who can’t interact with real animals.  They also enjoyed an area where they got to clip together various cubes, each of which served a different function, in order to construct their own robots.

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We did not stay at the Franklin Institute for an extended period simply because the crowds were unbearable.  It was good to be back after our year long break, however, and we were reminded about all it has to offer.  We look forward to more trips there this coming year but hopefully with much smaller numbers of people crammed into the space.

We decided to treat ourselves to a little luxury by dining out in the city.  Mr Pict selected The Dandelion, which he has eaten in several times with colleagues.  We were actually supposed to go there for my birthday celebration but there was a stuff up with the booking so it did not happen.  I think, therefore, that it was my Unbirthday dinner.  The Dandelion serves British cuisine.  For many decades, people scoffed at the idea of British cuisine, regarding it was an oxymoron, but British food can actually be really very good.  The restaurant is housed in what looked to have been a residential building and was decorated in a very eclectic way, a sort of ramshackle chic.  It reminded me of a mixture of junk shops and cafes from my childhood.  Of course, we loved the tastebud nostalgia of the whole experience too.  Our children immediately ordered glasses of Ribena – a blackcurrant squash from the UK – and I had a Pimm’s Cup.  There were several things I could have ordered but I plumped for the fish and chips as I was eager to see if they could make chips the way they do in Britain, crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle, and I am happy to report that they were a very tasty success, as was the beer battered fish.  I usually only manage one course of food but I pushed my limits because there was Sticky Toffee Pudding on the menu.  I have not had a Sticky Toffee Pudding since we emigrated (I really ought to make it but never do) so I just could not resist the temptation.  Not only was the cake delicious and light and deliciously treacly, but it was also served with date ice cream.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings all loved every morsel of their two courses of food too.  Indeed, Mr Pict declared that the short rib was the best he had ever consumed.  The luxury of delectable food in a pleasant setting with great service went a long way to mitigate against the stress of an overcrowded museum and ensured that our President’s Day trip to Philly was a success.

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