Final Escapades of 2019

Trigger Warning: This blog post contains photos of spiders and other bugs.

Happy New Year!

This brief blog post is a precis of the last Pict family escapades of 2019, what we got up to over winter break.  We were not overly ambitious or adventurous, choosing to stick fairly close to home and keeping each outing brief, because our focus was on quality family time, enjoying each other’s company, and relaxing after what has been a stressful, chaotic, and busy few months.

The first family event of winter break was a cinema trip to see ‘Rise of Skywalker’.  We are a family of Star Wars nerds.  Mr Pict and I have loved it since we were kids and so we introduced it to each of the boys when they were babies. We, therefore, had to see the latest installment in the saga as soon as we possibly could.

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Mr Pict and I took our youngest son into Philly to see the Christmas lights and wander around the market that sets up near city hall every holiday season.  The light show that projects images onto the facade of city hall is well done, though the accompanying music could have been louder.  I really detest crowds but at least the throngs were all people in good spirits and nobody was in a particular rush.  It did, however, make me appreciate the relative peace and quiet of the adjacent garden space with its antler clad figures and twinkling fairy lights.  We had a wander around the market stalls, just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells.  We were not making any purchases so didn’t have to get involved with any jostling and thankfully we didn’t need any refreshments because the queues for food were astounding.  The whole area of the city had a good buzz to it.  I think maybe sparkling lights make everything feel better.

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We had a lovely Christmas Day, full of fun and feasting.  My personal highlight was receiving a Little Baby Yoda made for me by my 14 year old son.

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Mr Pict took our 12 year old skiing in the Poconos.  I have never had an interest in skiing but Mr Pict introduced all of the boys to the sport a few years ago.  Our current 12 year old is the only one who took to it so a day of skiing has become an annual event for the two of them.

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Finally, we had some tickets for the Insectarium so we took a trip there just before the new year.  Our only previous visit there had been in our first winter in Pennsylvania, almost exactly six years ago.  It was the subject of one of my early blog posts.  Much of the Insectarium was the same but the building has also expanded so it includes a butterfly pavilion.  We enjoyed wandering among the large butterflies, most of which were the same species.  I cannot remember the name of them but they were large with brown patterned wings which opened up to reveal a stunning, shiny blue.  They also seemed to be fond of eating oranges.  The absolute highlight of our time there for my youngest son and me, however, was being permitted to hold a tarantula.  We loved it.  I was completely smitten.

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That concludes my round up of the last embers of 2019.  Let’s see what is in store for us in 2020.

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National Museum of American Jewish History and Ghost Ship

Today is my birthday.  Today is also election day and, since my workplace is used as a polling station, my birthday treat is a day off of work to be home alone.  Each year, on a weekend adjacent to my birthday, I get to decide where we go and what we do for a day trip.  I love museums so my choice was to visit a museum in Philly that we had not yet visited.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is situated in the old city.  It is housed in a lovely building that allows its collections to be organised into clear chronological and narrative strands.  We started on the an upper floor and with the story of the first Jewish community to immigrate to the United States and then moved throughout the galleries and levels to learn about the contributions the Jewish community have made to American history and culture.  I realised that I knew almost nothing about Jews in colonial America so I found that gallery to be especially interesting.  My kids enjoyed the section about migration within the US and my youngest had a hoot dressing up in prairie clothes and pretending to cook beneath the covered wagon.  He tried on various costumes in several sections of the museum which was a great way to keep him moving and engaged.  At one point he even pretended to be a dog in a kennel.  My 14 year old is currently reading the book ‘Refugee’ by Alan Gratz so he liked the display about the perilous journey of the St Louis and, of course, the tragic consequences of countries refusing permission to land.  Predictably, Mr Pict liked the section on the Civil War.  For my part, I really enjoyed my visit to this museum.  I especially like social history and there was plenty of that being showcased.  I actually would have benefited from more time in the museum as I had to rush through the last section and even then we were the last visitors to leave and they literally locked the doors behind us.

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After the museum, we headed off in search of food.  Before we found a suitable option, however, we passed Shanes Confectionery and had to pop in.  Aside from being a sweet-toothed family, Shanes claims to be the longest running confectionery shop in the US.  We were gifted some Shanes chocolate and famous clear candy a few years ago now so we have sampled some but it was great to finally be in the store.  Stepping across the threshold was like stepping back in time as the store has been lovingly and beautifully restored to its early 20th Century style, including restored machinery and gadgets.  My oldest son found the narrowness of the store to be too claustrophobic for his liking but the rest of us thought it was all wonderful.  My youngest is a chocaholic so he was smitten to the point of being overwhelmed by all the marvellous chocolates.  He is also cat-obsessed so he loved seeing chocolate in feline form.  I loved seeing the old cash registers and the stained glass and the patina on all the wooden shelves.  There were so many fabulous confections to choose from but we rose to the challenge and made our selections.

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Dinner was in a British themed pub.  We were all excited to spot that Irn Bru was one of the soft drinks available.  Even though the recipe has (somewhat controversially) changed since we left Scotland, it was a taste of home.  There were also mushy peas available as a side so Mr Pict and I ordered those.  They were far too good quality to taste authentic but that is not a cause for complaint.  I can usually only manage a single course when eating but I had spotted sticky toffee pudding on the menu so had to order it – though I did share with some of the boys.  I was delighted to discover that it had been made with dates just as it should be.  It was scrumptious.

The closing ceremony for my birthday trip was to view an art installation on the Delaware River.  When we arrived at the Race Street Pier, it was already dark so the ghost ship should have been visible.  Alas, it was not.  We were informed that the organizers were experiencing technical difficulties and they had no timeline whatsoever for a resolution.  Oh dear.  The crowd was restless.  Some people were loudly complaining.  We took up a position along the pier’s barrier and waited patiently for the glitch to be fixed.  After half an hour of waiting, however, the boys were bottomed out on patience and started to plead with me to give up and to just go home.  I was, however, determined to see this thing so just tuned out their gripes.  I admit that even my patience was waning as the cold seeped into my bones some time after the 40 minute mark.  Finally, water erupted from rigging that sat on the water’s surface and, as the fountains spumed, the image of an 18th Century schooner appeared, projected onto the water.  It was impressive and I was glad to see it.  Was it remarkable enough to wait almost an hour in the cold with four moaning children?  The verdict is still out.

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Rodin Museum

On Saturday, we were in the city for other reasons but decided to build in a jaunt to the Rodin Museum.  There are still (after 5 years of living here) several Philadelphia museums I have yet to visit and the Rodin was among them so I was glad to have the opportunity to check it off the list.  The building, which dates from the interwar period, is charming and its grounds are a little oasis of plants and water and calm in the city.  There were people relaxing in the courtyard with a book and I can well imagine it being a superb space in which to wile away some time and unwind.

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The basis of the museum is the collection of one man, apparently an avid fan of Auguste Rodin’s work.  It houses many of the sculptor’s most famous works.  Indeed, one of the dozen versions of his most celebrated work – The Thinker – greets visitors outside the museum.  I have seen versions of The Thinker before – at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow and I think the National Gallery in Washington DC – but this was the best version I have seen.  The thing I really appreciate about Rodin’s sculptures are the rough hewn textures, the sense of weight in the bodies, the torsion in the poses.  Being able to see a large scale version of The Thinker up close I could really observe the grip of the toes on the pedestals, the pressure of the elbow on the thigh, the weight of the chin on the raised hand.

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The interior space of the museum is compact but well lit and the contents are displayed thoughtfully.  There were, of course, lots of smaller works by Rodin.  I especially liked some busts.  However, there were also some sculptures by other artists who were either inspired by Rodin or were competitors of Rodin.  There was an excellent Picasso piece and a charming piece depicting an embrace between a sailor and a female figure that my 9 year old was especially drawn to.  The boys, incidentally, were not especially enthused by this particular trip.  Our 13 year old and our 9 year old were pretty engaged and enjoyed seeing the sculptures but the 16 and 12 year old’s were totally switched off.  Thankfully the museum had some benches for them to plonk themselves on while the rest of us milled about.

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In truth, the best pieces in the collection are all housed outside the museum and can, therefore, be accessed for free.  We were, therefore, lucky that we had visited on a free entry day.  The Gates of Hell is on a wall beside the building’s doors.  It was fascinating seeing the miniature versions of various sculptures within the composition.  The Burghers of Calais (one of a dozen castings) is in the grounds.  It depicts a scene from The Hundred Years’ War and being able to get up close to the figures meant I could really see the way Rodin was conveying the sense of defeat, dejection, and humiliation in their faces and sagging bodies.  My favourite of the pieces in the collection was also within the grounds.  I love the composition of The Three Shades and the way the three male figures combine to form a single, almost organic shape and I also really like the rendering of the musculature in the poses, even if the angles of the necks are wholly unnatural.

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Philly is actually a great city for public art generally, from transitory installations to diverse sculptures to the fantastic murals covering the sides of buildings and walls to monuments and memorials.  We encountered a few of these on our wanderings on Saturday and really I should try to plan out a few walking tours so we can see a lot more of this public art.  I am now also keen to return to the Philadelphia Art Museum.

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Flowers and Freedom

On Saturday, I went with a friend to the Philadelphia Flower Show.  On my own.  Child-free.  No clock-watching or pressure of time.  It was an absolute luxury.  I really know very little about flowers and gardening.  My friend knows a bit more than I do but is no expert.  I think it is safe to say, therefore, that attending the Flower Show was an opportunity to just be grown ups together and enjoy each other’s company more than it was about indulging any horticultural interest or ability.

This was also my first time attending an event in the Convention Centre.  My husband and two of my children have attended Philly Comic Con annually since we emigrated to America so they are veterans of the Convention Centre but I have had no reason to go before.  The Flower Show is run by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and is apparently America’s longest running and oldest flower show, dating as it does from 1829.  I imagine that people attend in order to be inspired by new plant varieties, by landscape design, to participate in competitions, and to meet with other flower enthusiasts.  Aside from the opportunity for a day of unfettered freedom, the appeal for me lay in seeing a riot of colour and vibrant life given how much I have been loathing Winter and craving Spring.

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Given my degree of ignorance, this will not be a long blog post.  I did, however, enjoy wandering among the displays and showcases.  Most impressive was a tropical jungle built around scaffolding poles that had been painted to mimic bamboo and which were festooned with stunning flowers in bold colours, including cascades of orchids and swirling leaves, and incorporating various water features including a series of waterfalls and the occasional shower of rain.  I was also very taken with a desert area filled with an incredible variety of cacti and succulents.  My friend and I became a tad obsessed with one colloquially named “dinosaur back” because of all of its folds and ridges.  Had one been available for purchase, I might have brought that home with me.  I am not very good at keeping houseplants alive but cacti do somehow manage to survive in my care despite my negligence and evil eye.

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The theme of the flower show was apparently water.  That seemed like a very easy challenge to me since almost all plants require water for sustenance and many garden designs incorporate water.  Still, I do enjoy a good water feature so I liked seeing the variety of ways in which water had been built into the landscaping.  Aside from the water, we noticed some other repetitions of design: glass orbs and copper.  We congratulated ourselves on spotting what might be a gardening “trend”.  There was. for instance, a visually appealing display involving a mirrored table (imagine keeping that clean of smears and finger smudges?) with glass orbs hanging above it like a chandelier, each orb containing a plant.  I thought it would make for a pretty wedding table whereas in my home it would make for megatons of stress and fingers being cut on shards of smashed glass.  On the subject of weddings, I did love an outdoor wedding table, all wood and soft moss, including what looked like a tiered cake made from slices of log.  I could imagine Oberon and Titania dining in just such a setting.

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The competition areas were befuddling to me.  My lack of expertise meant that I could not possibly figure out why one plant or arrangement had been awarded first place while another was an honorable mention.  It was another opportunity to see a diverse selection of plants I had never encountered before.  There was a miniature citrus tree with blossoms and fruit, venus fly traps and pitcher plants inside humid terrariums, arrangements inside tea cups (I liked those a lot!), lots of breathtaking orchids, and blooms in every shape and colour.  I was drawn to the weirdo plants, the non-conformists, and the ones that looked like me if I was a plant.  I got more excited than a grown woman ought to when I spotted some chubby tuberous plants that looked just like mandrakes from ‘Harry Potter’.

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In truth, I cannot say I learned much after a day at the Flower Show and any sense of inspiration was tempered by the reality of my green-finger skills (which are brown-thumbed to be honest).  I did, however, very much enjoy a pleasant day out without the responsibility of keeping children engaged.

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Mirror Maze and Fountain Frolics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Barnes Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Christmas in the City

Following our early afternoon jaunt to Washington Crossing, we did something that appealed far more to the boys – we headed into the city to soak up some of the festive atmosphere.  I must confess that I am rather short of seasonal sparkle this year.  I think November arrived quickly and caught me off guard and I have felt like I have been playing catch up ever since.  I have also been very distracted by other things that have required my focus so I have had little time to think about Christmas.  That is all on top of the fact that for me the holiday season brings with it additional chores, tasks and errands to be ploughed through.  I am not feeling all bah humbug about it but nor am I excited and enthused about Christmas yet.  I was hoping, therefore, that a trip into Philadelphia to see the market and the lights would start to sprinkle me with glitter.

Our first port of call was the Christmas Village.  I learned that Philly had a Christmas market by reading a blog article on Phoodie and the Beast but maybe all of my distractions have led me to overlook promotion for it.  Sited in Love Park, it is quite a bit smaller than the European markets it is clearly emulating but the compact nature probably suited us best as there is only so much perusing of wares my kids will tolerate.  Swirling around a central Christmas tree, the little wooden shacks were selling all sorts of things.  There were lots of stalls that would interest if one was seeking handcrafted jewellery.  There were also lots of stalls selling lovely Christmas ornaments.  I rather liked wooden Santas, carved in Russia and Ukraine, but they were very much out of my price range.  We also liked a stall bedecked in blown glass baubles but I resisted temptation as I have found that glass baubles and small boys do not mix.  The boys were captivated by a stall selling puppets.  I think had they had deeper pockets, they could have spent a lot of pocket money at that stall.

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It has been a few years since I was last at a Christmas market – the last one being in Glasgow – and I rather liked the experience.  There was enough to see and do without it being a time consuming slog or another episode of “dragging whining kids somewhere against their will”.  The atmosphere was friendly and warm, with plenty of people milling around, lots of glistening lights, and the smells of delicious foods filling the area and making my stomach rumble despite the fact I was still stuffed full from a late lunch / early dinner.  While the compact nature of this Christmas village was helpful to us as parents, it did mean that all the people milling about were like sardines.  I don’t like crowds because I do not like physical contact with random people so that was another reason we did not malinger too long in the market.  We did stay long enough to let the boys pick out two little Germanic houses that emit a charming glow when a candle is placed inside.

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After the visit to the Christmas market, a hop, skip and a jump brought us to the Comcast Centre where – at the top of each hour – a “Holiday Spectacular” is broadcast on their gigantic screens in the entrance foyer.  We arrived with ten minutes to spare which was just as well as it fairly filled up after our arrival and the kids would not have gotten such a good view.  The show is broadcast on the vast LED screens in amazing high definition.  I am no technology junkie.  My husband might marvel at developments in TVs and such like but it is all lost on me.  However, as one might anticipate from a telecoms giant, the technology was incredible.  The figures on the screen looked entirely three dimensional.  There were snowy scenes, penguins, the Twelve Days of Christmas, The Nutcracker, giant piano keys, Dickensian London, and aerial scenes of central Philly.  It lasted about 15 minutes and my kids were spellbound throughout.  Nobody moaned about standing or about being hemmed in by other people.  That there is a Christmas miracle.  The whole presentation was very polished and actually quite enchanting.

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Darkness had fallen completely while we were in the Comcast Centre but the air was still warm.  We are experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures in PA this December and are apparently on track for a record warm Christmas Day.  T-shirt weather in December!  The kids were loving it so we let them run around outside the building where there were spotlit trees and twinkly lights in branches to entertain them.  I disrupted their play to try and get a festive photo of all four of them together.  That did not go down well.

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Next stop was Macy’s where I had heard there was a holiday light show at the top of each hour.  We made it on time by the skin of our teeth but finding a position on the shop floor that afforded us decent views was impossible.  The kids lost interest within minutes.  It was also uncomfortably hot because of the combined body heat of all those people crammed together indoors.  Frankly, the light show was also rather lacklustre compared to the broadcast we had just seen.  We, therefore, left after a few short minutes.  The kids were far more taken with the Macy’s window displays out on the street, a few of which were on a Peanuts theme.

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We had not intended another stop off on our trip into Philly.  However, as we strolled past the Municipal Buildings Plaza, my kids were overtaken with a fit of nostalgia.  They had spent a lot of time playing in this plaza during our first ever trip into Philadelphia.  Their rosy glow was ironic given that that particular trip was a horrendous fail.  My husband having to take a lengthy work phone call combined with the kids pitching fits at every opportunity made it an incredibly stressful trip.  Apparently, however, they had fostered fond memories for this place.  The plaza is the location of a collection of sculptures depicting gigantic gaming pieces, dominoes, Monopoly markers.  A group of teenagers were using it as a skateboarding park but they were soon pushed to the edges by my mob who were excitedly running and climbing and leaping all over the place.  It was a fun conclusion to a fun evening.  I might even have felt the first twinkles of festive spirit stirring in my soul.

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Sketching at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

It is actually rather surprising that I have lived in the Philly suburbs for two years and yet Sunday was my first ever trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  We have, of course, past it many times.  It is a hard to miss the main building, imposing in its elevated position and in its architectural stylings as some sort of Greek temple.  The first Sunday of every month (and Wednesdays after 5pm) are “pay what you like” entry meaning we gave a donation rather than paying the usual ticket price.  That made it much more affordable for us to visit and not feel we had to see absolutely every item on display.  It was the perfect time for us to take the boys along to an art gallery – and the PMA is one of the biggest in America – since we are close to concluding our History of Art project.  It was interesting to see how much learning about art history and theory they had absorbed (way more than I had anticipated) and to see which of the artists we had studied they were eager to see the works of.

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Most of our family trips to museums and art galleries have always involved sketching.  It keeps the boys engaged, keeps them occupied while Mr Pict and I read information about the exhibits, and gets the kids to observe details they might otherwise overlook.  I had intended on taking along our art journals for sketching in but I knew large bags had to be checked at the museum and I didn’t fancy carrying five books around so I had a brainwave and grabbed a large stack of index cards instead.  They turned out to be perfect!  We could hold them in our hands easily while we drew even if we were standing in a crowded room.  The idea was to just draw whatever caught our interest, entire compositions or details, attempts to copy a work of art or just use it as the basis of something else.  My 10 year old, for instance, did a lot of Batman homages and my 12 year old zombified drawings.

I don’t know if it was just that the docents were made antsy by increased visitors (if there even were swollen numbers because of the name your entry fee day) but I have never been made to feel more unwelcome in a museum in my life – and I have been to a vast number of museums in my time.  My kids were well behaved but I was made to feel as if I had to keep them shackled to my side or else risk being chastised by someone in a uniform.  In a wide open room with hardly anyone in it, my kids were sitting on the floor to do some sketching.  Nobody had any difficulty moving around them.  They were not remotely in anyone’s way.  Nevertheless, we were told they had to get up off the floor because they were endangering other visitors.  Later Mr Pict was told off for pointing in the direction of a painting even though his arm would have to have grown at least a foot for his finger to have even come near the painting.  Our little one can be a bit of a hand full so we had eyes on him at all times and kept him in grabbing reach.  Regardless, his butt only just had to touch a bit of the balcony  – because he took a step backwards – and he was told off for doing something dangerous.  It was exasperating.  I also don’t think it is the ethos or atmosphere museums should be striving for.  Exclusivity means encouraging engagement with all types of people including children.  That, however, was the only bum note in our trip and I would say that two of the docents were very good.  One was actively engaging people in conversation about art rather than just staring at visitors and one was very interested in the drawings the boys were doing and gave a hearty chortle when she saw that my 8 year old had turned his drawing of Renoir’s Washerwoman sculpture into Batman.

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We knew we could not possibly cover the whole of the main building’s galleries in one visit  – at least not without rushing and getting many grumbles from the kids – so we decided to focus on American art and the 19th Century European galleries as that would cover the majority of the artists who we had studied as part of our art history project.  The PMA has an impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art.  The boys settled down to draw their first sketches in a room lined with Renoirs, Monets, Manets and one of Degas’ Little Dancer sculptures.  My 6 year old was especially taken with all of the Renoir nudes and used a lot of index cards drawing voluptuous women inspired by Bathers and some other pieces.  We also spent a lot of time in a room containing a Munch mermaid frieze and paintings by Klimt, Schiele and Friedrich.  It was fascinating seeing the Klimt piece – Klimt being one of my favourites – as it was unfinished and I was able to see his approach to painting the different elements of the portrait, making the background and figure cohere.

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It was pleasing to see the boys recognising the work of artists before reading the labels.  I have been unsure of how much of the learning from our History of Art project has been sinking in but it seems like they have been absorbing far more information than they were letting on.  Cezanne’s Bathers was one of the paintings we had studied so it was cool for them to see its huge scale.  They were excited to spot on of Monet’s water lily paintings and to see one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings and they were chattering knowledgeably about Van Gogh’s use of thick paint.  They were also able to identify a Modigliani from just a glimpse of it in a corridor.  My 10 year old was over the moon to spot a Lichtenstein, whose comic book style had really chimed with him, and they were also able to recognise works by Kandinsky, Mondrian and Klee.  My 8 year old absolutely loves the work of Chagall and Picasso so he was jumping up and down with joy when we first walked into the museum and saw Chagall’s massive Wheatfield on a Summer Afternoon.  He also loved seeing Chagall’s Half Past Three and visited the museum shop in order to buy a postcard of it for his bedroom.  We also spent a lot of time studying Picasso’s Three Musicians and sketching its figures and patterns and shapes, either trying direct copying or drawing inspired by the painting.

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We had a detour through the armoury section and the museum’s collection of rooms from various historic periods shifted wholesale from their original settings.  We also stopped to watch and listen to a group of musicians demonstrating traditional Dia de los Meurtos music.  Then it was time to move onto the American galleries.  The boys’ concentration was flagging at this juncture, however, so it was a speedier walk through with me just pointing out some of the highlights.  I was frustrated to only chance upon one Sargent portrait as he is another of my favourites and I had hoped to show the kids more.  We were able to see a few Winslow Homer pieces, including The Life Line which was one of the paintings we had looked at when studying Homer.  The Museum also holds an impressive collection of paintings by Thomas Eakins, a realist painter from Philadelphia.  He is an artist I am not very familiar with so I was glad of the opportunity to look at so many of his portraits, including two massive paintings of celebrated physicians teaching.

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Once outside, the boys could burn off some of their energy.  Although they have never seen the movie, my boys are aware of the iconic scene from ‘Rocky’ in which Rocky runs through the streets of Philly before triumphantly running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  They, therefore, decided to recreate the scene and ran down and then up the steps.  My 6 year old, by far the most physical of my kids, powered up and down the whole flight of stairs several times before we urged him to stop.  We then popped around the corner to take a photo of them with the bronze statue of Rocky at the bottom of the steps.  I find it quite amusing that of all the sculptures in Philly one of the most famous is of a fictional character.

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The trip to the Museum was a birthday treat for me.  I love art (you may have noticed) but have not visited a major art gallery since we emigrated to America so it was a real treat to go and visit such a huge collection.  I was unsure of the extent to which the kids would engage with the trip but, between sketching their way around and their ability to recognise the work of certain artists, they were on top behaviour with very little mumping and moaning until they flagged right at the end.  We will definitely return to see more of the museum some other time.  I will also remember to take index cards with me for future trips – we produced almost 100 drawings between us on this single visit.

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