My First Rodeo

A couple of weekends ago, Mr Pict decided we needing to do something fun and different and spontaneously got tickets for a rodeo.  Mr Pict had been to a rodeo before, when travelling in either Wyoming or Montana, but it was a first experience for the kids and me.  I am always up for trying new things but the kids were not sold on the idea, not even the horse daft 10 year old.  It has been grotesquely humid and stinking hot here in Pennsylvania lately so Mr Pict had opted for the evening rodeo.  Partly the kids were aggrieved that we were having to go out for the evening instead of them playing video games or watching a movie but I was glad that we had because it was still pretty steamy out even as darkness fell.  For me, the only downside to the evening show was that I didn’t have enough light to take decent photos.

We started our jaunt outside the arena where there was lots of food, drink, and paraphernalia to buy.  My youngest son had to be dissuaded from buying a cowboy hat.  The boys love fairground food so they leaped at the opportunity to gorge on funnel cake and my 11 year old bought himself a massive pickle on a stick.  What is it about sticks that makes the food more festive?  I cannot say that I can even guess the answer.

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We entered the arena and found a spot on the bleachers that gave us a decent view of the performance area.  Having never been to a rodeo, I had no notion of what to expect or how things worked.  I decided to treat the whole experience like an anthropological study since I knew I was going to be set apart from the action rather than being properly engaged in it.  The atmosphere reminded me a lot of the Redneck Festival we had found ourselves at three years ago.  I never even began to figure out how the events were scored.  Clearly an element of it was to do with time, how long each rider could stay on the horse or the bull, but otherwise it was all entirely obscure to me.

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The first event was the one I always associate with rodeos: folks wearing cowboy gear riding on horses that are desperately trying to throw them off.  Not a single rider lasted for very long.  Each one was “blink and you miss it” fast.  I couldn’t really follow what was going on in any great detail.  To my mind, most impressive were the chaps who were stationed on horses ready to get into the fray and rescue riders and lasso horses.  They had real skill.  The next event involved riding on bulls.  Bulls that were annoyed.  Completely crazy.  Why do people do this for sport? Again, no rider lasted very long.  It was over even quicker than the horse riding.  One bull fell on top of a rider, which made everyone in the audience gasp, but the bull got to its feet and the rider limped off as if it was just another day at the office.  Seriously, why do people do this for fun?  While the bucking horses and bulls were ridden by all male riders, there was an event that was all women.  That involved riding horses at high speed around barrels in a specific order.  Obviously the quickest horse and rider were the winners.  If you can imagine a horse doing a skidding handbrake turn, then that was what was happening as the horses pivoted around the barrels.  The angle of the horse to the ground was pretty shallow.  It was pretty impressive.

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There were “entertainments” between the events.  One of these was a Mexican cowboy who performed with a lasso while standing on a horse.  I don’t really understand how to make a lasso work at all so I couldn’t detect what was extra fancy or tricky about the things he was doing.  Folks in the crowd who did appear to understand, however, appeared to think his lasso jiggery-pokery was a bit special.  Then there was a clown who performed for the crowd within the arena.  There were clowns everywhere at the arena; it was teeming with them.  I have a lifelong clown phobia thanks to a dreadful early experience at a circus.  These clowns appeared to be members of the organisation holding the rodeo and fundraising for charity.  Despite their good deeds and honourable actions, they just made my flesh crawl.  My oldest son told me that rodeos are well known for having clowns and I should have expected it.  I hadn’t.  It was a shock.  Anyway, the clown doing the entertaining, however, was simply dreadful.  His patter was stilted and lame and from a bygone era, not one I am nostalgic for either.  My sons were aghast at the misogyny and xenophobia of the jokes.  At one point during a singing skit, my 10 year old had his head in his hands just willing it to end.

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I think we all felt that the rodeo was an interesting experience and that we were glad we went in order to have that experience.  However, none of us are likely to be eager to repeat the experience.  It just wasn’t us.  At least now we can all say, “This isn’t my first rodeo”.  That’s something.

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Concord Point Lighthouse and Elk Neck Park

We had started our second day in Baltimore so early that we found we were leaving the city before noon.  We, therefore, decided to do something spontaneous as we drove through Northern Maryland and head to the Chesapeake.

We first stopped in Havre de Grace.  I have driven past the small city several times before but have never actually been in.  It looked quaint and picturesque, the type of place that would be pleasant for a stroll.  We went straight to the Concord Point Lighthouse, which is sited where the Chesapeake meets the Susquehanna.  During the War of 1812, the British attacked the city and, during that attack, Lieutenant John O’Neill manned the cannon single-handed in order to defend the town.  Injured and captured, the story goes that his 16 year old daughter rowed out to the British vessel and plead for her father’s release.  She was succesful and her father was released and the British Admiral awarded her bravery with an expensive snuffbox.  When the lighthouse was built in the late 1820s, O’Neill and his family were made its hereditary keepers as an expression of gratitude.  The granite lighthouse is 26 feet high with the lantern bringing it to 36 feet.  Although we could not go inside, apparently it is a rope ladder that allows people to ascend through a trapdoor to the lantern.  The keepers did not have to be accommodated within the lighthouse itself as there was a separate dwelling nearby.

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After our visit to the lighthouse, the boys were keen for a dip in the water.  We, therefore, headed to a town named North East – which also looked very pleasant – and Elk Neck State Park.  The kids immediately donned their swimming gear and rushed down to the shore.  The beach was rough, scrubby, and pebbly but the kids said that it turned to finer sand once they were further out in the water.  The incline into the water was gentle and the kids could get really quite far out while standing.  Beaches are not my thing but the kids had a blast swimming, splashing, and floating around.  It was a good way to burn off their energy before the rest of the journey home.

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Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore

Our second day in Baltimore was dedicated to all things Edgar Allan Poe.  I have been a fan of Poe’s writing since I was a tween – not a super-fan by any stretch but his work is something I have returned to frequently through the years.  Poe was rather itinerant so Baltimore was only one of many cities where he lived and worked.  Indeed, there is a Poe house in Philly that I really must visit some time soon.  It was, however, in Baltimore that he died.  If you have read my blog enough then you will know me to be an avid wanderer of cemeteries and graveyards so the prospect of visiting Poe’s grave was an opportunity I could not pass up.

Westminster Hall and Burying Ground is a charming little spot in an otherwise not so charming area.  The small graveyard predates the church building by over half a century and, as such, the Gothic Revival building straddles the ground below by being placed on top of piers.  The result is a sort of crawlspace under the church.  We could get under it by stooping.  It was pretty fascinating to see since I have never seen anything quite like it.  My kids enjoyed exploring all of the nooks and crannies the space had to offer which was fine by me as it gave me more time to read the memorial inscriptions and study the grave architecture.

Poe, in fact, has two grave sites within the burying ground.  We visited them in reverse chronological order as the second site is imposing and just inside the entry gate.  Poe died in 1849 at the age of just 40.  His death was rather confounding as nobody could figure out why he was in Baltimore and he was in too delirious a state to explain.  He was also wearing clothes that did not belong to him.  Even his cause of death has been lost in the mists of time.  In the end then, Poe’s death was as mysterious as one of his stories.  Apt but sad really.  Anyway, in 1875, with Poe’s literary reputation posthumously established, a group raised enough funds to establish a more impressive memorial in the graveyard.  Poe’s remains were exhumed and he was re-interred at the site, a large block of pale marble on a granite base and a medallion portrait inserted into its face.

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There having been no challenge in locating Poe’s memorial, the boys then scuttled off to see who could find the original grave first.  In such a small space, it again was not difficult to find.  This burial spot had a much more modest headstone with a carving of a raven on it.  This had been a family plot so the grave of Poe’s grandfather was nearby and his brother was also buried in the vicinity.  Poe’s cousin/wife and aunt/mother-in-law had also once been laid to rest in this spot but – like their famous relative – had been relocated to the memorial site.

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Poe is not the only famous resident of the graveyard, however.  Tucked against an exterior wall is the grave of James McHenry.  He had served as Secretary of War under Washington and Adams, had signed the US Constitution as a delegate representing Maryland, and Fort McHenry named in his honour.  Also of particular interest to me was the grave of Philip Barton Key.  Key, an attorney, was an attorney and the son of Francis Scott Key.  See how niftily I managed to tie up so many of the elements of our Baltimore trip!  He was having an affair with Teresa Bagioli Sickles which very much displeased her husband, despite his own notorious philandering.  The husband, Daniel Sickles, shot Key repeatedly after confronting him on a Washington DC street.  Mr Pict’s ears pricked up at that part.  Not only was the murder victim somewhat famous but so was the murderer.  Dan Sickles was a New York politician and lawyer who later became infamous for almost causing a Union disaster at the Battle of Gettysburg when he moved his troops without orders and with catastrophic results.  The Civil War nerd was, therefore, suddenly interested in the grave.  The murder, however, is interesting for another reason: it was the first time in US legal history that a defence of temporary insanity had been attempted and by gum it worked because Sickles was acquitted.  This was in 1859, before Gettysburg and the loss of his leg, and before his congressional career.

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There were other interesting graves in the grounds too, including several more people of historical significance.  One area of the burial ground, very near the underside of the building, was covered in graves belonging to one tragic family.  They were the graves of John and Sarah Brown and four of their children.  Six of their ten children died young, many in early infancy, and Sarah also died prematurely in one of the city’s epidemics.  It was a poignant reminder of the high mortality rates in times past.  There was also a bowed grave, marking the resting place of a veteran of the Revolutionary War.  The raised slab of marble, which was atop four pedestals, had been eroded by the elements and by pollution in such a way that it had buckled into a curve.  I had not seen anything like that before in all my visits to cemeteries.  There were also large, above-ground vaults for various families.  They had fancy looking facades to them but it was interesting to note that the rest of the vault looked rather like a large pipe.

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Having seen both of his grave sites, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to go and visit one of Poe’s houses.  The house in Baltimore is actually the earliest surviving house in which Poe lived.  It almost did not survive as it was slated for demolition in the early 1940s but was saved thanks to a Poe society.  It was, therefore, preserved and stands at the end of a terrace of 1930s houses.  It was quite the juxtaposition.  Among the stories Poe wrote while resident in the house were ‘M.S. found in a bottle’, ‘Morella’, and ‘Berenice’.

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The house was rented by Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, who lived there with her mother (Poe’s grandmother), her daughter Virginia (who Poe would marry when she was just 13), her son Henry, and nephew Edgar.  It was a very small house to have accommodated all of those people and it was explained to us that the women would all have slept in one of the rooms while Edgar and Henry shared another room.  The rooms were decorated as they would have been in the 1830s but there was no furniture as part of the reconstruction.  This was probably fairly lucky as there was very little space in each room as it was.  The room the males would have slept in did contain some items linked to Poe, including a chair and his lap sized writing desk.  From that room, a tiny, narrow, winding staircase led up to an attic garrett room which contained a bed, chest, and chair.  The spaces inside the house were dark, gloomy, and more than a little claustrophobic but that actually felt completely apt for Poe’s house.

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I was thrilled to have visited one of the three remaining houses that Poe once lived in.  I was even more thrilled that the visit inspired by youngest sons to become interested in Poe.  They have subsequently watched a series of animations of short stories and have read the pop-up book of Poe writings we own.

National Aquarium, Baltimore

After a morning spent travelling from the Philly ‘burbs and looking around Fort McHenry, we headed around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to visit the National Aquarium.  That was really the focus of our trip to Baltimore as it was the thing the kids really wanted to do.  The Aquarium has timed entry so, when we reached the front of the ticket line before 3pm, we were issued tickets for a 4pm entry.  That gave us time to have a scout around that area of the Harbor.  We saw some interesting vessels moored up, including a large coastguard ship and a submarine, we saw ducks paddling around among flotillas of trash, and we saw some interesting buildings, including an old power plant that has been converted into a retail space.  It was a bookstore so we headed in there to benefit from their air conditioning and peruse books on the shelves.

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Before long it was time for us to return to the Aquarium and go in.  The timed entry system works well I think as it meant we did not waste time queuing and it meant the exhibit spaces of the Aquarium rarely felt too crowded.  We started at a large pool and the kids were instantly enchanted.  Our 10 year old is shark daft so he was super-duper-excited to see sharked slipping through the water.  There were also large rays covered in spotty patterns and we all squealed with glee when a large green turtle appeared and came to the surface.

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The touch pool was a huge hit with all of us.  There were the usual rays and horseshoe crabs for us to pet and we enjoyed that.  Another touch pool, however, was filled with charming little moon jellyfish.  We were told that we could stroke their curved bodies using two fingers.  It was marvelous.  I adore jellyfish anyway (it helps that I’ve never been stung by one) but I have only ever touched dead jellies.  I was smitten as soon as I felt the jellyfish, cool, rubbery, slippery, soft.  It was a delightful experience.

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Another favourite area of the Aquarium was a tank full of puffins.  Is there any other bird as cute as a puffin?  Despite living near some colonies of puffins in Scotland, I had sadly never managed to see any in close proximity.  I love their plump monochromatic bodies and those brightly striped beaks.  They did not disappoint with their antics either.  We saw them bobbing around in the water, swimming beneath the surface, and flapping their wings.  I could have watched them for ages and ages.  It made me wish I could have a pet puffin.

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There were, of course, tanks galore filled with interesting fish.  I was particularly drawn to all the brightly coloured fish.  My 8 year old was obsessed with all the different species of catfish because he is obsessed with cats of all kinds.  He was also drawn towards any of the over-sized fish, of which there were many.  Meanwhile, my 10 year old was all about the stars of the show: the sharks.  The Aquarium is renowned for its large shark tanks and we were not disappointed.  I failed to get a decent photo of any of the sharks but there were scores of large sharks in a vast, deep doughnut shaped tank that surrounded we visitors.  We could get right up to the glass so could feel almost immersed in the water with them and really appreciate the scale of the sharks.  There were nurse sharks resting on the floor of the tank, sand tiger sharks with their needle sharp teeth, sandbar sharks, large rays, and a largetooth sawfish which was an entirely bizarre looking beastie.

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There were areas dedicated to rainforest environments and to Australia.  The latter was a very small area and we did not manage to see all of the birds or the flying foxes that were apparently in the room.  We did, however, see some stunning birds with bold plumage and lots of interesting reptiles, including a freshwater crocodile.  The rainforest area was more successful in terms of spotting critters.  We even managed to go crazy bananas excited when we spotted a sloth among the foliage dangling from the ceiling.  Mr Pict is one of those arachnophobes who is fascinated by spiders so he enjoyed seeing the tarantula.  There were also some amazing birds in that area, including scarlet ibis and turquoise tanagers.

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Another room was just filled with tanks full of jellyfish.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings took a rest break while I spent time in there looking at all of the details of the jellies.  I love their variety.  Some had stubby little tentacles that looked a bit like crinkly coral or brains while others had long, thin tentacles that moved elegantly in the water.  I found it mesmerising to watch their bodies pulsate as they propelled themselves around the tanks.  I think I would find it quite soothing to have a tank full of jellyfish.

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The kids rallied when it came time to visit the dolphins.  They are a colony of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins who were all born in captivity.  I am not generally in favour of large marine mammals being kept in captivity but obviously it is not possible to release captive born dolphins into the wild.  There is also an argument that getting to see dolphins up close inspires people to care more for the ocean environment.  In any case, they had just completed their final show performance of the day so we wondered if they would not be keen on being on show for visitors.  However, they were swimming around being very playful, leaping, and chasing each other.  I think it must be pretty impossible not to love dolphins.

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It was evening by the time we emerged from the Aquarium but still very hot and humid.  We decided, therefore, to stop into a nearby ice cream parlour for some cold, sweet treats.  It was a delicious way to end a great day in Baltimore.

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Fort McHenry

While our oldest two sons were still gallivanting in central America with their grandparents, Mr Pict and I decided to take the younger two on a weekend trip to Baltimore.  It takes less time to drive to Baltimore than it used to take us to drive to Glasgow from where we lived in Scotland and that was a journey we used to make just to buy shoes.  Despite its relative proximity, however, we had only visited Baltimore once since we emigrated to America.  It was, therefore, time to go and explore the city a bit more.

First stop was Fort McHenry.  Even if you don’t know much about the War of 1812 (like me!) you will likely know of Fort McHenry through association because it was the defence of that fort that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, the rousing song that would later become the national anthem.  Fort McHenry is positioned on Baltimore’s harbour since it was that waterway it was built to protect and it is in the shape of a five pointed star to maximise the vantage points for each bastion.  Built at the close of the 18th Century, the Fort was in constant use by America’s military from then until the end of the First World War.  It is, therefore, a very historic place of national significance.  Want to hazard a guess how thrilled our 8 and 10 year olds were to be there absorbing all of that history?  See if you can spot the point at which they disengaged.

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After an introduction in the Visitor Center and the youngest Pictling signing up to do the junior ranger activities, we headed out into the swampy humidity to tour the fort.  There were reenactors demonstrating something about firing cannons and cooking at the fort but the kids had no interest in engaging with any of that so we didn’t pause.  Once inside the thick walls, we found that some young men were demonstrating different drum signals that were used to signal different messages.  I think there might have been one rhythm that was beat out on the drum skin to signal whose turn it was to peel potatoes.  But I may also have just imagined that because I wasn’t paying adequate attention.

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We not only saw a reproduction flag flying above the fort but also saw the original wooden cross brace from the famous defence.  It had been preserved as if it was a religious relic.  I confess that I don’t particularly understand America’s near worship of its flag but, of course, this flag has much more historic significance than most.  It was, therefore, pretty cool to see the crumbly old wood.  The defence of the Fort took place over the 13th and 14th of September and it didn’t really end in a victory for either side.  It was more a withdrawal by the British naval vessels because the great defence of the fort had depleted all of their ammo.  If memory serves, the whole War of 1812 similarly concluded because everyone just sort of gave up and decided to pack it in.  Anyway, the flag that was flying during that 25 hour period of conflict had been sewn by Mary Pickersgill and it was seeing the flag emerge through the smoke the next day that told all the onlookers – including Francis Scott Key – that America had prevailed and still held the Fort.  So that it what the national anthem is all about.  We had taken the boys to see the original Star Spangled Banner way back in 2014 so we were gradually piecing together its history in a scattershot way.

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As a Civil War nerd, Mr Pict was much more keen on the Fort’s history from the Civil War era.  During that conflict, the fort had been used as a military prison and some prominent prisoners had been held there.  One building told the story of that period of history and we were able to step inside one of the very pokey jail cells.

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It was a sticky hot day and the kids and I are not much into military history so we didn’t look at every single space or exhibit in detail.  We walked around the ramparts and took in the views and we pottered around in the various barrack buildings.  Each building exhibited a period of the fort’s history, including its use in the First World War as a military hospital and its use in the Second World War as a coastguard base.  There was a room filled with barrels to show what the gunpowder stores would have looked like and there was a collection of cannon outside one building.

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The boys had had more than enough of visiting the fort, especially because it was so similar to Fort Mifflin, so we decided to depart before they spontaneously combusted in a combination of frustration and heat.  They soon cheered up on the walk back to the car, however, since they found dozens of shed cicada skins stuck to the bark of trees.

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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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