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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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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Eastern State Penitentiary

Thanksgiving is one of my favourite things about living in America.  Of course, I am glossing over the horrible history of European colonialism and the acts of oppression and genocide towards the indigenous population that are enshrined in the mythology of Thanksgiving.  My husband and kids may be Mayflower descendants but we still don’t truck with that whole lore of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting around peacefully and munching corn and turkey as an act of friendship.  No, forget the mythologising.  What I love about Thanksgiving is that it is a holiday that not only celebrates gratitude but also togetherness.  We have four solid days together as a family to just relax and enjoy each other’s company – and eat a disgusting quantity of delicious food.  As the mother and chief organiser of any festivity or event, I am also thankful that Thanksgiving involves minimal preparation and stress.  No gifts to buy or wrap, no decorating to be done, just food to be purchased, cooked, and feasted upon.  And that enjoyment of a stress-free, low-hassle holiday is precisely why – despite my thriftiness and love of a bargain – I don’t participate in any Black Friday madness.  I loathe shopping at the best of times.  Fighting through frenzied crowds in the hopes of finding things I actually wanted or needed at a much lower price is not the best of times.  This Black Friday, therefore, we steered clear of any shopping and shoppers and instead headed into Philadelphia to absorb some local history.

Our destination for the day was Eastern State Penitentiary.  The prison is an imposing building of thick stone walls in the centre of Philadelphia.  We entered through the original entry way and were directed into what was once the guard’s armoury to purchase our tickets and pick up our audio guides.  A few steps later and we found ourselves in the grounds of the prison and all sense that we were in the middle of a major city melted away.  The thickness and height of the walls meant that barely any sights or sounds from the city outside intruded on our wanderings and we could immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the historic prison.

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The building of the prison was completed in 1836 and was modelled on a wheel-spoke design.  A central, octagonal rotunda served as the hub of the building while the corridors containing the cells radiated from this hub so that guards could more easily observe what was happening and navigate the prison.  It is an architectural design I have seen in old British prisons and asylums but I don’t know which side of the Atlantic developed the idea first.  The cells were obviously now in a state of ruin but we could see from the recreated cell that they would have always been very spartan but spacious enough.  While the only light was through a hole in the ceiling – known as the “Eye of God” – the cells did have a rudimentary system of flushing toilets and pipes that filled with hot water to keep the cells warm in Winter. We were able to wander along most of these corridor spokes and poke our noses into the decaying cells, many of which were in ruins all while listening to Steve Buscemi relate the history of the prison through our headsets.

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Eastern State Penitentiary had instituted what was a novel approach to corrections by insisting that all prisoners held within its walls be subjected to what essentially amounted to solitary confinement.  There were initially no doors into the cells from the corridors, just hatches to allow food to be passed in and for guards to observe the prisoner.  Access to each cell was gained through a door from the exterior, via the exercise yard.  We learned that if prisoners were being moved around the prison they were made to don hoods over their heads which both prevented them seeing their fellow inmates and their fellow inmates being able to identify them.  Obviously with the benefit of hindsight we know this to be harsh treatment but this model was actually very enlightened for its time and was motivated by a desire to improve the experiences of prisoners and their quality of life and inspire them to true penitence.  Nevertheless, knowing what we now know about the awful psychological impact of that degree of isolation, I felt quite chilled.  This insistence on solitary confinement ended in the early 20th Century not because reformers were concerned about mental health but because the prison was so overcrowded that it was no longer feasible to keep all the inmates separated.

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We emerged from one spoke out into the exercise yard.  There was a playing field for sports and also a greenhouse and gardening area.  In the middle of the scrubby baseball diamond, a large bar graph was used to illustrate how rates of incarceration in the US have rocketed in recent decades and how the US imprisons far more of its population than any other country in the world.  This was not news to me but seeing it presented in such a way, through a simple but dominating sculpture, and within the context of the stone walls of a prison really made the message quite stark.  Some areas of the penitentiary were being used as exhibition spaces for various art installations, some permanent and others revolving.  One, for instance, was used to recreate the cells found at the detention camp at Guantanamo.  Another had been made by a former prisoner while incarcerated and comprised panels made from sections of his bed linen.  He had apparently mailed each little piece of fantasy landscape home upon its completion so that it was only once he was released that he could piece the whole thing together.  All pieced together, it covered the walls of one particular cell.  Another cell had walls glowing with flecks of gold paint as the artist had added fragments of gold leaf among the pieces of peeling, flaking paint on the walls.  I thought that suggested not only something about the possibility for redemption and rehabilitation but also something about the importance of finding value and beauty in the ugly and ruined, preserving history and the importance of places even with such superficially awful histories as prisons.  Plus I love gold, shiny things.  The most arresting of the art exhibits to my mind, however, was a cell containing monochrome portraits suspended from the ceiling.  Each portrait depicted a person who had been murdered by one of the inmates of the penitentiary.  While I had been feeling a strong sense of pity and sorrow for the prisoners who had been held in the prison from its opening right up to 1970 when it really must have already been deteriorating, that exhibit punchily reminded me that some of those people I was pitying had committed despicable and violent crimes.  My kids were especially taken with a display in one cell which would not have looked out of place in a museum of natural history.  It was a collection of specimens gathered within the confines of the prison – insects, birds, and even a mummified cat.

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I enjoyed the glimpses into everyday life at the prison.  One cell contained a barber’s chair and I could well imagine prisoners gathering there to have their hair cut and chat and gossip just as would happen in any other barber shop.  I was also able to pop into the beautifully restored synagogue that was nestled between corridor spokes.  We also got to see Al Capone’s cell with its recreation of his home comforts.  Eastern State Penitentiary was the site of Capone’s first prison experience and I don’t think it was altogether miserable for him.  Apparently, while the media made much of Capone receiving special treatment while he was imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary, he was probably being treated not vastly differently from the average inmate in that era of the prison’s life, maybe just a few simple perks. Recent research, we were told, explains that the radio he had in his cell was purchased from its previous occupant and also indicates that Capone had to share a cell when surely not having to share would have been one of the first luxuries insisted upon if in receipt of special treatment.

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It truly was a fascinating place in and of itself but also in terms of the wider context of penal history and attitudes towards punishment and rehabilitation.  I could easily have spent another hour or two wandering around the Penitentiary, listening to every last morsel of the audio tour.  However, our kids – especially the 11 year old – had had enough and were at the threshold of what they were willing to tolerate.  We, therefore, chose not to push our luck and to depart while the going was good.  I was very pleased to tick off another historic Philadelphia landmark from my list of places I must visit.

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Laurel Hill Cemetery

Peculiar though it might seem, for my birthday trip I chose to go for an explore of Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Although I don’t think I qualify as a taphophile, I have always loved cemeteries.  Along with museums, art galleries and libraries, they are my favourite places to visit.  Cemetery trips feature not infrequently on this blog as a result.  It is only surprising, therefore, that it has taken me three years of living in the suburbs of Philadelphia before visiting one of its historic cemeteries.

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Laurel Hill Cemetery sits on a hillside above the Schuylkill River and covers a huge expanse of land.  With all the Autumn colour in the trees, it was a rather beautiful spot for a wander even regardless of the history and funerary sculpture.  The cemetery was founded as a garden cemetery in 1836, originally rural but soon eaten up by the growing city.  In some ways it was reminiscent of the huge municipal London cemeteries I always loved visiting (Kensal Green being my favourite) but it was a little more organic in design and not as regimented in its organisation.  Happily, I had done my usual over-planning thing.  I had printed off a map of the cemetery and used the Find A Grave website to plot the location of the graves I was particularly interested in visiting.  This proved useful because not only were the individual plots not numbered but neither were the different areas of the cemetery.  Thanks to my map, however, we were able to locate almost every grave we were searching for.  Annoyingly one of the graves I missed was that of Scottish born John Notman, the architect who had designed the cemetery.

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We began our trip by popping into the office where a helpful young man provided us with a bigger version of the map I had printed out and some scavenger hunt activities for the kids.  The scavenger hunt was a great idea as it not only kept the kids occupied but also engaged them with subjects such as the symbolism of monumental masonry.  Directly opposite the Gatehouse was a sort of grotto containing a statue depicting Old Mortality, his horse, and the author Sir Walter Scott – plus a bust of their sculptor.  In Scott’s story, Old Mortality wanders around Scotland preserving the memories of Covenanters by carving the inscriptions on their headstones.  Thematic connection to tombstones aside, it was a tad obscure.

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Just behind the statue was our first famous grave of the trip.  In the shrubbery was the Deringer family plot, including the grave of Henry Deringer, the innovative gunsmith known for the Derringer pistol.  Just a short wander away, I found the unassuming grave of Sarah Josepha Hale.  An author and activist, Hale is now principally remembered for two things: it was she who wrote the nursery rhyme ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ and who successfully campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday.  Although I am not American, I love Thanksgiving so I shall be sure to raise a glass to Hale in a couple of weeks’ time.

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I visited the graves of a couple of photographers because one of my nerdy interests is the history of photography (partly because I am descended from a Victorian photographer).  First up was Frederick Gutekunst, one of the most famous American photographers of his era.  His studio particularly boomed as a result of the Civil War as soldiers, including Generals such as Ulysses S Grant, stopped in to have their portraits taken.  I was more excited, however, to find the grave of Robert Cornelius.  Cornelius was a photographic pioneer who, while experimenting in order to perfect the daguerrotype, in 1839 took a self-portrait which is the first photographic portrait.  Cornelius’ grave was small in its own right but was especially small compared to the grand tombstones in that particular area of the cemetery.  I was, however, able to spot it from a distance precisely because of that famous selfie because a small oval copy of it was stuck to the fascia of the grave marker.

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My 11 year old is currently learning about Explorers at school so I dragged him down a few flights of steep stairs past lots of marble mausoleums to find the tomb of Elisha Kent Kane.  Kane, a naval medical officer, was part of two Arctic expeditions launched (in vain) to locate and rescue explorer Sir John Franklin.  The second search led him to travel further north than anyone had previously managed, thereby paving the way for those Arctic explorers who came after him.  Sadly, the site of Kane’s tomb was overgrown and rather neglected.  This was because it was positioned right by the roadside on a fairly steep slope and was, I assume for safety reasons, fenced off from the rest of the cemetery.

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When Laurel Hill Cemetery was in its infancy, the founders found it a challenge to attract business.  People were too used to being buried in graveyards next to whichever building they attended for religious services.  They, therefore, had the interesting idea of having the remains of some famous Philadelphians exhumed and then reinterred in the cemetery.  As a business practice, that is a tad ghoulish.  It meant, however, that I got to see the grave of Thomas McKean, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and David Rittenhouse, astronomer, surveyor, and first director of the US Mint.

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The cemetery contains many military graves, including those of over 40 Civil War Generals.  As you may recall, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so he was particularly interested in spotting the Civil War graves.  The two most significant of these that we visited were those of Generals Meade and Pemberton.  General George Meade was a career military man involved in many conflicts but he is known to me for his part in Gettysburg where he led the Army of the Potomac, helped secure the Union’s victory, and contributed to that turning point in the war.  Because Mr Pict takes us all off to Gettysburg at least once a year, Meade was one of the Generals I could have named from the top of my head.  John Clifford Pemberton, on the other hand, is the only Confederate General buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Despite being a northerner and having two brothers fighting for the Union, Pemberton had chosen to fight for the Confederacy for personal reasons.  As a Confederate, his internment in Laurel Hill had been controversial.  Among those who campaigned against his burial there were the family of General Meade.  Ultimately he is there, albeit in a far flung corner of the cemetery.

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Finally, we visited the graves of several people associated with the sinking of The Titanic.  I almost literally stumbled over the plot where Lily and Olive Potter, who survived the sinking, were buried.  We then found the Widener Mausoleum on the stretch of the cemetery known as Millionaire’s Row.  The Mausoleum is actually dedicated to Peter A B Widener, the wealthy Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist.  His son, George, and grandson, Harry are also commemorated there.  Both men drowned when the Titanic sank and their bodies were never recovered.  George’s wife Eleanor survived and she established Harvard’s famous Widener library in memory of her son, a passionate collector of rare books.  Lastly, we found the mausoleum of William Crothers Dulles.  Dulles’ was one of the few bodies recovered from the Atlantic and identified, this due to his monogrammed tie clip.

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I recognise I have filled this blog post with the potted histories of dead celebrities.  This is because that is something I find it interesting to do when pootling around in cemeteries.  I like the way cemeteries and graveyards intersect with history, whether that is family history, social history, national or global history.  It is in large part because I am a history nerd that I love to visit cemeteries.  However, I also love cemeteries simply because they are lovely spots of wander around in, an oasis of calm and serenity away from the hustle and bustle of the town or city.  Laurel Hill had plenty of that to offer too.  The views across the river and to the rest of the city were pretty impressive, especially when we got onto higher ground, and the Autumn colour in the trees was magnificent.  The boys particularly enjoyed playing in a huge pile of orange leaves.  They rolled around in them, threw leaves in the air, jumped into piles of them, and made “leaf angels” in them.  My 9 year old also made several insect and invertebrate friends on his travels.

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The kids also enjoyed having the freedom to roam.  Normally on trips into the city, I have to rein them in a bit in order to keep an eye on them and stop them getting lost.  But in a quiet cemetery, it was possible to let them wander around and explore and be their feral little selves so long as they didn’t wander too far.  Them having a bit of freedom also afforded me the opportunity to seek out the graves I was interested in and also enjoy the monumental sculpture in the cemetery.  One of the most impressive of these was the sculpture on the Warner grave.  The sculpture depicts a soul emerging from the tomb which is being opened by a female figure.  The tomb was sculpted by Alexander Milne Calder, fellow Scot and originator of the Calder sculpting dynasty.  The other tomb I really liked was one for a family named Berwind which is marked by a beautiful figurative sculpture titled Aspiration by another local sculptor, Harriet Whitney Frishmuth.

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As you can no doubt discern, I was in nerdy cemetery heaven at Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Had I been on my own, I could have kept meandering around the vast cemetery for hours longer.  As it was, Mr Pict and the Pictlings were very tolerant and allowed me plenty of time to explore, locate graves, and take photographs.  After the cemetery, we headed into the city centre for my birthday meal.  We ended up ditching the booking Mr Pict had made at one restaurant because we were too early for the full menu to be available and instead ended up at a Chinese restaurant where we had an amazingly delicious feast and the boys sampled and enjoyed things they might otherwise have not tried.  All in all, therefore, it was a very successful birthday trip.

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Magical Music with the Philly Orchestra

On Saturday, we Picts headed into the city to see a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It was our first time seeing the Philly Orchestra and our first time inside the Kimmel Center.  For our four boys, it was their first ever time seeing a full orchestra live.  That, indeed, was our motivation for going: we try our best to expose them to all sorts of interesting experiences so that we can see what makes an impression, determine what interests and enjoyments might stick.

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What made this particular performance a great one to sample was that it was the orchestra’s Halloween show.  Not only did this mean that it was pitched at children in terms of content and length but it meant we could be assured that the audience would comprise families, making it a bit more relaxing as a first venture to see a full orchestra.  The Kimmel Center itself is a glorious space and we had a great view of the stage within the auditorium despite being in the cheap seats.  It was fun seeing most of the children in the audience all bedecked in fancy dress.  Our kids went as two Scouts from ‘Attack on Titan’ and Wolverine – and a teenager in teenage mufti.  Furthermore, the musicians were also in fancy dress.  There was even a T-Rex on percussion.

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The general theme of the performance was Harry Potter which meant lots of excerpts from John Williams’ score for the movies.  Followers of my blog will be aware that the kids and I are Potterphiles and Mr Pict and I essentially have the scores of John Williams as the soundtracks to our lives since he composed the music to so very many of our favourite childhood movies.  It was magnificent to hear that music, with all its conjuring of magic, being played live.  There were other selections of music that were familiar to our kids too, such as Grieg’s ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ but they also got to hear some music with which they were either less or not remotely familiar – pieces such as Liadov’s ‘Baba Yaga’ and Khachaturian’s ‘Masquerade’.  As a performance, it truly was incredible.  I loved every last minute of it and I think the younger kids in particular gained a lot from experiencing the music live.  My oldest son is not really into music so he just let it wash over him.  We tried.

In addition to the music, however, the performance was also designed to engage children through other means.  The conductor, Aram Demirjian, was dressed as a Hogwarts professor and played the part with aplomb as he explained to the audience about each piece being performed and delivered the segues.  He was accompanied on stage by a brace of magicians who performed traditional tricks for the kids in the audience to watch while listening to the music.  We all gasped when handkerchiefs turned into doves and laughed when a levitating walking stick accidentally walloped one of the violinists.  There was also a clever running motif about using the Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat to decide which section of the orchestra four different musicians belonged to.  This was a smart and thematically apt way to introduce children to the percussion, wind, brass and string sections and I think much preferable to the Benjamin Britten approach I was taught at school.

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It was a wonderful day out and hopefully the first of many to see the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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Harry Potter Festival – Our Year Three

On Saturday we visited the Harry Potter Festival held in Chestnut Hill, another suburb of Philadelphia.  This was our third year of visiting and it has become a family tradition to attend.  We almost did not go this year as we had a three way schedule clash to contend with, I have a pretty debilitating chest cold, and the weather was cold and rainy.  My Potterphile kids were aghast at the idea that we might not go along to the Festival this year, bottom lips pouting out like open drawers, so when our schedule clashes were cancelled because of the weather we decided to head on over to Chestnut Hill.

The first year we went to the Festival, it was a delightful experience.  There was lots of space to wander around and really absorb the magical atmosphere and observe the efforts the people of the town had gone to in order to turn their town into Hogsmeade.  There were also very few long queues so the kids could get involved in all sorts of activities and really make the most of the day.  Last year when we went, it was evident that the organisers were struggling to manage the vastly swollen number of visitors.  Longer queues and more crowds meant we had to get the kids to prioritise what they wanted to do because there was no way we could complete their wish list.  This year, I would estimate that the number of people attending had increased tenfold.  It was unbelievably busy for what, in essence, is a local fete – albeit one with a theme that has massive appeal.

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We were very lucky to secure a parking spot a few streets back from the town centre so that our walk was not too long, especially given it was cold and raining.  As soon as we hit Germantown Avenue, however, we were met with a wall of people.  I will state that the atmosphere was still brilliant.  A large proportion of those visiting were either in full costume or were wearing clothes related to Harry Potter.  My own children were wearing Harry Potter themed t-shirts but did not have them on display since they were wearing two layers on top.  We had a great time seeing people all dressed up, including a baby in a front carrier dressed as a mandrake and a dog with a harness that turned him into Fluffy the three headed dog.

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The crowds, however, were just intense.  There is no other way to describe it.  They got so thick at the train station end of town that it was impossible to move other than be carried along by the crowd.  I spoke to two cops who were being pushed along beside me and one commented that it was a bit crazy thinking about how challenging it would be for them to move quickly towards an incident.  I do not do well in crowds at all.  It makes my anxiety spike and makes me feel aggravated and, with the kids, a little panicky.  Everyone was being completely lovely about being squashed together and were being very accommodating and understanding but it was still pretty stressful.  The numbers of people also meant that the queues for every activity, stall, and shop were staggeringly long.  I overheard a whole lot of people complaining about the dearth of portapotties in town and that queues were often an hour or more long for those that were available.  We were lucky that none of us ever needed a comfort break.

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We did manage to squeeze into a couple of activities.  Two of the kids bought potions in the grounds of the Jenks Elementary School and the other two snagged the last two bottles of butterbeer.  They also got to have a go on some manual typewriters which they loved.  It was peculiar to me to think that a machine that saw me through my undergraduate degree was now being considered something antiquated and alien to kids.  They had no idea how to operate them, tapping the keys way too lightly as they would a computer keyboard.  Furthermore, the children (not just mine) seemed to have no idea what to do when they reached the end of the line.  I could  see mine searching the keys for a return button.  I showed them how to push the lever and move the roll along.  And then I realised that a mother standing next to me also had no idea how to operate a manual typewriter.  That made me feel very old.

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As Potterphiles, we will definitely return to the Festival next year.  Hopefully lessons will be learned and adaptations made but I wonder if anything can be done (beyond more portapotties and perhaps pedestrianising a larger stretch of road) to really accommodate the massive crowds in attendance.  But we will give it another go next year and see if things have improved so that we can enjoy the Festival again as much as we did in our first two years.

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Scoffing Shane’s Confectionery

I have lived in Pennsylvania for just over two and a half years now and in that time I have sampled a few state foods.

Despite the fact that Mr Pict and the Pictlings love them and I go into school every two weeks to deliver them to the kids, I do not like pretzels.  I know I should be drummed out of the state for such an admission but I just don’t like them.  I can eat one if I have to but it is not something that I enjoy.  I did like Tomato Pie but I prefer more traditional Italian pizza than this twist on the theme.  I tried Tastykakes and was disappointed – as I had been by my first ever Girl Scout Cookie.  I do like Rita’s Water Ice and frozen custard and like that I can deploy it as a bribe / reward for my kids ever so often in the summer months.  I have mentioned several times on the blog now that I do not like American chocolate, despite visiting Hershey twice now.  The Pictlings have had no such difficulties adjusting their palates to American chocolate but the taste and especially the texture remains alien to my Scottish mouth.  In addition to visiting Hershey, we also did the Turkey Hill Experience to learn how this local ice cream is manufactured.  Ice cream I love; it just doesn’t love me as I am lactose intolerant.

Recently I tried a new local food in the form of some sweet treats from Shane’s Confectionary.  Having started operations in 1863, Shane’s claims to be America’s oldest continuously running candy shop.  It’s store on Market Street, Philadelphia, opened in 1911, when the business moved into retail from wholesale.  Having fallen on hard times in the post-war period, the candy shop was recently lovingly restored.  We will have to take a trip there with the kids some time.

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We actually received some Shane’s candies as a New Year gift and, knowing they were special, I saved them for a rainy day.  We had some cherries that had been soaked in brandy and covered in chocolate.  These tasted divine and the crunch through the chocolate into the chewy, fruity centre was pleasing.  They also had a lilac metallic lustre to the chocolate coating which made them extra magical.  There were also some chocolate caramels.  The kids all loved those but, given American chocolate does nothing for me, I was not bowled over by those.

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The boys also had a moulded sugar steam locomotive.  Apparently these clear candy toys  – brought to PA by the Amish – are a holiday tradition at Shane’s, with parents buying them up for their children’s Easter and Christmas gifts.  I have happy memories of going to an Edwardian style sweet shop with my Gran and picking out a variety of boilings which were plopped into a paper poke and treasured and savoured during shopping expeditions.  I completely understand the tradition and the element of nostalgia.  The train was literally just boiled sugar though and, therefore, would have been too bland for my liking.  Give me Kola Kubes and Soor Plooms any day.  There were no complaints from the younger sweet-toothed Picts, however.

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So that is Shane’s Confectionery ticked off the list.  I wonder what my next experience of edible Pennsylvania will be.