Hey Guys! It’s September already and we are on the letter L on our ABC of World History. And it is quite convenient because I had the perfect material for this update from a trip I did a couple of years back and that I never quite had the opportunity to post about as I was right in the middle of my PhD thesis write up and several other publications. But, Today is your day 😉
For my birthday in 2017, I was lucky enough to go to the beautiful and incredibly surprising city of Luxembourg and as I was there I had a look around other places outside of the city, mostly Vianden castle which is a great site to go to. I literally had all of 2 full days and 3/4 of another as the flight back to the UK on the last day was at 8 pm, and I must say it was all a very pleasant experience. So today, I will leave with you my quick and super packed of history and goodness travel log.
In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by Dr. Dan Gosling, the Early Modern Legal Records Specialist at the National Archives. He’s here to talk to us about using legal records as a source, and all the untapped potential that is there through the example of a London bear garden!
You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.
Introducing the Nu History podcast! A key feature of our newly re-branded blog!
Our aim with these podcasts is to simply get together and talk about any given topic relating to history! And usually we will plan to have a special guest or two to learn from about their area of expertise.
For our first episode, hosts Lilly and Alex are joined by James to talk about our different perspectives on how the Covid-19 pandemic has and will effect history, particularly in museums, academia and reenactment!
You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.
This post will feature the newly opened, Battle of Britain Bunker and Visitor Centre on the former site of RAF Uxbridge in the London Borough of Hillingdon. It is the only Second World War bunker to be preserved and open available to the public. The former RAF site was sold off for a new housing development in 2010. The Bunker was available for tours, booked in advance. Now however the site has been heavily invested by the financial backing of Hillingdon council and houses a new Visitor Centre adjacent to the Bunker, whereby prior booking is no longer necessary. The Visitor Centre explains about the line of work that happened in the Bunker and features interactive exhibits and visuals relating to plotting, radar and collecting calls from telephones. It is also a good feature for those visitors who are less mobile as they can still see information and learn about what happened in the Bunker.
Outside the complex visitors are welcomed to the statue of New Zealander Keith Park (1892-1975), the Second World War Royal Airforce commander. He oversaw the running’s of the operation room at RAF Uxbridge for two years from 1940-1942. He was known as the “Defender of London” in Germany and for organising fighter patrols during the Dunkirk evacuation the Battle of Britain campaign. What’s more, the grounds also include a mock Hurricane, Spitfire and memorial close to the entrance of the Bunker immortalising the words uttered by Winston Churchill when he entered the Bunker on a visit in 16th August 1940, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few”.
Upon arrival visitors must report to the entrance desk at the Visitor Centre to collect tickets to visit the Bunker. The Bunker operates tours in the mornings and afternoons. Please ensure to take a ticket and keep it on your person until the guide leads you to the entrance of the Bunker, it is here where you hand your ticket to a steward. When entering the bunker, you go down a long flight of stairs so be watchful.
The Bunker was the location for No. 11 Group RAF’s operation which served as part of the Dowding system. The Dowding system served as the world’s first conception network on land to control airspace in the United Kingdom. It used a telephone network to gain intelligence as opposed to radar that could have been intercepted. This Bunker is most famous for controlling airfield operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and additionally the Dieppe raid of 1942 and the D Day Landings of 1944.
Geographically there were several fighter command groups stationed in the United Kingdom they were divided into different geographical locations. No. 11 Group which encompassed the South-East, No. 10 Group covering the South West, No. 12 Group covering the Midlands, No. 9 Group covering the North West, No. 13 covering the North East and lastly No. 14 Group covering Scotland. Focusing on No. 11 Group its headquarters was located at Hillingdon House at RAF Uxbridge. The group’s operating room was within the Bunker underground, to avoid detection. A previous bunker was built over ground in 1939 but the idea of having an operations room over ground was too obvious in case of an enemy air attack.
The commands that occurred in the Operations room within the Bunker was passed onto airfields within the group. These airfields were divided into 8 different sectors. The Operations Controller was seated above a plot map and a display on the wall relating to the other RAF stations within the group covering; RAF Tangmere, Kenley, North Weald, Debden, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and Northolt. These were the stations were fighter squadrons were based. It is important to note that everything displayed in the Operations room was always suited to the view of the Operation Controller. Additional staff included; Army and Navy Officials, Plotters, telephonists and RAF officers, one of which was the late Hollywood actor Rex Harrison.
The map of the United Kingdom and northern France was displayed on a large board whereby the Operations Controller could see very clearly where plotters would update them with necessary information. This was a job carried out by plotters who were mainly women from the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAFs). They were fed information from Chain Home Radar stations monitoring approaching aircraft, it was the Royal Observer corps that detected aircraft that was friendly or hostile. This information was fed to a Filter room whereby the plotters in this room would breakdown the information and relay it to the plotters in the Operation room. The plotters used long thin rods that would move markers on the map indicating numbers of aircraft and how many feet they were in the sky. It also displayed friendly and hostile aircraft. Depending on what information they receive the would move the markers across the map to provide the Operations Controller an up to date understanding of affairs happening in the skies.
Going back to the display on the wall depending on the different stations lights will flicker to state whereabouts aircraft is and to show the Operations Controller a physical embodiment/tracking of their decision making from standby to action. It is also important to note that the visibility and weather balloons was also marked on the display, again providing the best view to the Operations Controller so they can be best informed to make decisions. The plotters job was important as they had to ensure the information was kept up to date, otherwise that could mean drastic consequences for aircraft and cause confound decision making for the Operation Controller. When changing shifts, the plotters had to standby the other plotter they are shifting with to see what information they were being fed to again make sure the information on the map was current. This was also true when a plotter needed to take a break, the covering plotter had to stand with the plotter wanting a break for approximately 10-15 to ensure all information fed to them was being kept up to date.
The location of the Battle of Britain Bunker is easy to get to, it is close to the Town centre of Uxbridge, Greater London and has good connections to the A40 and M40. It is an easily accessible day trip from London as the tube serves Uxbridge on both the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines. Additionally, the U2 is the nearest bus to serve the Bunker which will then take an extra 10-15 minutes to walk to the venue.
Residents of Hillingdon Borough can visit for free (upon showing Hillingdon resident card) as with servicemen/women and ex-servicemen/women. Please check with the venue for exact proving to those visitors from outside the area.
All in all, the Bunker and Visitor centre is a great day out for history buffs, particularly those with an interest in the Battle of Britain.
The Library of Alexandria was not the first library, that honour belongs to those libraries in Iraq and Syria, but it is the first to capture the imagination of historians. One of the largest libraries of the ancient world, it was renowned as a centre of scholarship and part of the Musaeum of Alexandria, home of scholars such as Hero (the father of mechanics), Archimedes (the father of engineering) and Herophilus (the founder of the scientific method). Created by Alexander the Great’s successor Ptolemy I Soter, it is estimated to have held somewhere between 40,000-400,000 scrolls of papyrus at the height of its success.
I’d lusted after Edinburgh from afar for absolutely ages, but it was only last week– after years of increasingly desperate planning– that I finally got the chance to visit the city of my dreams.
Getting off the Megabus was tricky. For one, I’d been sitting for a twelve hour coach journey and my joints were stubbornly refusing to work. But there was something else, something which made me pause at the automatic door, probably to the great annoyance of the coach driver. It was a deep-seated nervousness, combined with a sense of This is it! You’re actually here!
You see, after years of hoping and dreaming, the reality of it scared me. What if Edinburgh failed to live up to my ridiculously high expectations? What if, after all, it was simply the grey, ‘gloomy’ city my lecturer had described in a reply to my Sorry, won’t be in next week’s lecture, third year is too much and I’m running away to Scotland for a while email? (Of course the real, Actual Responsible Adult™ reason for visiting Edinburgh was to scope out the postgrad open day, but I’ll run away from that as well, while I can).
Photo courtesy of Wendy Li
Photo courtesy of Bryony Lumsdale
Eventually I did get off the coach and, in a bit of a daze, I wheeled both myself and my suitcase out of the station and on to North Saint Andrew Street. The first thing that hit me, straight away, was the temperature. It was freezing, but absurdly pleasant after sitting in a stuffy coach all night. In the east, the sun was rising above the distant Firth of Forth, and the sky was a gorgeous shade of purple, specked with deep oranges and strands of golden yellow which were reflected off the tall Georgian buildings nearby. My hair, caught up in the near-Arctic wind, whipped around me and, while I had barely slept all night, I felt exhilarated. I knew then– as cheesy as it may sound– that Edinburgh would not disappoint.
So we set off in search of Justin, our Airbnb host for the week, to collect keys and settle in before a long day of open day-ing and thinking of the future-ing. He was a little late and for a moment, huddled together against the cold on Nicholson Street, we wondered if Airbnb was possibly all a big scam. But Justin soon arrived, and was lovely. He gave us a quick tour of the flat –bathroom here, kitchen there, keys through the letter box when you leave – and then left us to recover from the journey and de-zombify ourselves for the day ahead.
Justin’s impossibly beautiful Airbnb flat, would 100% recommend. He even provided complementary bottles of Irn Bru and teacakes. An absolute angel.
Justin’s impossibly beautiful Airbnb flat, would 100% recommend. He even provided complementary bottles of Irn Bru and teacakes. An absolute angel.
The open day at The University of Edinburgh was brilliant. As the main reason for travelling 418.3 gruelling miles in a Megabus, I found it both useful and decidedly worth it. Still not 100% sure of the course itself though, I’m possibly leaning ever so slightly more towards another one at the moment, but it’s a shame because I fell completely head-over-heels for the university itself. Also, credit where credit’s due, the staff and open day helpers were excellent throughout the day, answering any questions we had and being very friendly.
Afterwards we all returned to Justin’s and had well-deserved naps, relishing at the prospect of sleeping in actual beds rather than a crowded moving vehicle. I slept deeply and dreamlessly and woke feeling refreshed, if still a little tired. We had dinner– a lovely meal of pasta and lentils courtesy of Wendy then left the house again for a haunted ghost walk of Edinburgh’s underground spaces with City of the Dead Tours.
Photo courtesy of Wendy Li
Photo courtesy of Bryony Lumsdale
It was raining buckets when we left the house, and positively chucking it down by the time we arrived at the meeting point along the Royal Mile. The drenched cobble stones and masonry were a glossy charcoal, like something out of a melodramatic Victorian murder mystery, glittering with the reflected reds and oranges of streetlights that could so easily have been gaslights. Just as I was thinking all that’s missing is Jack The Ripper, the tour guide appeared. He was draped in a thick black cloak, with a top hat perched on his head, and he called us over to the group with a thick Scots accent.
As he led the group to our underground destination deep in the Edinburgh vaults, he spoke about the history of the local area. It was embellished for effect, and there were certain bits that didn’t sound entirely historically accurate, but his words rang with a gritty realism. For the most part, he didn’t mention hauntings or ghostly goings on, but instead created a sense of horror through his descriptions of the conditions experienced by the very poorest of society.
He led us down ambling side-roads and winding cobbled streets, through historic red-light districts which were now lined with tourist shops and artisan bakeries, speaking all the while of the horrific overcrowding of the eighteenth century city, the dire mortality rates, and the failures of the state and the church in caring for the poor. When of course we finally did make it underground, he regaled us with ghost stories and descriptions of the South Bridge Entity which was said to dwell in the vaults. It was spooky, without a doubt, but I felt that the true horror of the night was resoundingly in his descriptions of the past.
As we emerged above ground again, the Old Town stretched out around us, appearing both ageless and ancient. It was all too easy to imagine the sights he had described, and the people who had suffered in this place. That was what haunted me most.
It soon started to rain heavily again and we were drenched trying to find our way home in the labyrinth of backstreets. Naturally, when Google Maps failed to work, we blamed the South Bridge Entity for making us lose our way.
Day Two: 17/11/16
Had a slight lie-in to recover from the knackering twelve-hour journey, and ended up leaving the house just after lunchtime. Our first port of call was the National Museum of Scotland, which I was embarrassingly keen to visit. It was a stunning building, both inside and out, which really did credit to the fascinating exhibits. The hands-on science and technology gallery was great fun, and we spent far too long playing with the interactive exhibits, making hot air balloons lift off and programming a robot to do our bidding. There was also a fair bit of snapchatting going on as we took in the culture which, to be fair, some exhibits seemed to directly cry out for.
As dedicated Outlanderfans, Bryony and I soon headed to the eighteenth century section, where we tried and failed to be dignified in our adoration of the era. Here, we were able to sit in a miniature thatched cottage, listen to traditional music of the period, squeeze into children’s dress-up clothes, and attempt to take in as much info as we possibly could. The exhibits on Culloden and the Jacobite risings in particular were beautifully comprehensive, and it was tricky to pull ourselves away from it all.
I’m basically Claire Fraser tbh
We could have happily sat in that thatched cottage reading about Bonnie Prince Charlie for hours, but it was getting late and we wanted to visit the Royal Mile before the shops shut. So we dragged ourselves away and exited via the (genuinely amazing) gift shop. It was then only a short walk before we found ourselves on one of Edinburgh’s most famous streets. The Royal Mile was lush and, to tell you the truth, I spent far too much money in its many tourist shops. I bought a gorgeously warm and cosy Edinburgh hoodie for myself, and presents for friends and family, as well as what felt like a few hundred postcards. Worth every penny, to be honest. Je ne regrette rien.
We were making our way back to the house when, purely by chance, we realised how close we were to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Of course, being the mature adults that we are, we were thrilled at the prospect of visiting one of Scotland’s most haunted locations after dark. It was nearly pitch-black and we walked around quickly, using the light from our phones to guide us, while attempting to avoid the group of people filming a Most Haunted style documentary in one corner of the cemetery. Eventually we began to feel unsettled and decided to leave.
Visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard
Ghost hunting in process
A rare sighting of the ghostly Gabrielle. Very spooky.
Day Three: 18/11/16
We woke up early in order to make it to the Glasgow University open day. Here, almost immediately upon arrival, I fell in love with the Glaswegian subway which was so refreshingly easy to use after years spent getting lost on the tube. The city had a buzz to it that’s difficult to describe, but it was artsy and ancient, energetic and fun. Glasgow doesn’t take itself seriously, which I really love about it.
The open day itself was perfect, and as of now I’m definitely planning to make an application. Everyone we encountered bent over backwards to help us and one man even walked us to the subway station in the pouring rain when we asked for directions. The city is undoubtedly deserving of its title as the world’s friendliest city.
After the open day, we had a quick look around the Hunterian Museum, then did a fair amount of tourist-ing, followed by a little bit of shopping where I was very tempted to buy quite a lot of gloves. Spotting the Duke of Wellington statue, cone and all, was a definite highlight of the trip. So too was dinner at Mono, a charming vegan restaurant/record shop in the city centre. I had a delicious to-fish and chips (battered tofu = Pure Heaven) followed by a chocolate avocado and walnut tart. Really wish there was a restaurant like this nearer to Winchester, because I could quite easily spend most of my life there.
Dinner at Mono
Admiring the Christmas decorations in Glasgow
Famous statue of the Duke of Wellington
As it was, I left Glasgow feeling sad that the day was over. I would have loved to spend more time in this brilliant city.
Day Four: 19/11/16
View from above…
… and view from below
We spent our fourth day storming Edinburgh castle. I was amazed by how much there was to see and do here, with many individual museums nestled within the castle’s keep. After a fascinating but freezing guided tour followed by the 1pm firing of the cannon, we had a chilly lunch in the tea rooms, huddled around Bryony’s teapot for warmth. We then headed to the National War Museum, where we spent well over an hour reading displays and being drawn into the history on offer. We even found a radiator in one room, which was a godsend.
Not to mention, it was also the perfect spot for the odd #MuseumSelfie which really is terribly good fun. In the words of curator Mar Dixon (@MarDixon), “I always feel so bad for those people who don’t get #MuseumSelfie or any fun in museums. I just want to hug them and tell them it’ll be ok.”
It was difficult to decide where to visit next, as we were completely spoilt for choice. Eventually though we settled on the Prisons of War which showcased the living conditions of POWs held there throughout the centuries. These men ranged from French sailors captured in 1758, shortly after the Seven Years’ War, to soldiers of the American War of Independence (1775-83), right up to inmates from wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1793-1815). The surrounding displays told tales of the prisoners, one of whom was a five-year old drummer boy, taken at Trafalgar (1805). Another, desperate to escape, hid in a dung cart, only to be killed on the rocks below as the contents were tipped over the castle wall. Four more succeeded in escaping in 1799, by lowering themselves down the rock on washing lines, while in the more audacious outbreak of 1811, 49 prisoners cut their way through the parapet wall, beside the battery. All but one escaped and the hole is still there today.
Next we sampled some lovely Bruadar whiskey in the Whiskey and Finest Food shop, then visited The Royal Palace, a principle royal residence from the eleventh century up until the early seventeenth. It was a fascinating building, with a grand history. Indeed, it was here that, on the 19th of June, 1566, Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland. It was truly remarkable to think that the first king of England and Scotland, a man who would go on to shape both nations so dramatically, had been born in such an impossibly small room.
The next part of our visit to the castle was spent admiring the Scottish crown jewels, which are the oldest in the British Isles, created in Scotland and Italy during the reigns of James IV and James V. They were first used for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in September, 1543. We saw the Stone of Destiny as well, also known as the Stone of Scone, which is traditionally thought to have once been part of an ancient royal bench-throne, and imbued with sacred powers. For centuries, Scottish kings were ceremoniously crowned atop the stone, tying the monarch to the land forevermore.
The Stone has an eventful history. In 1296, believing himself to have a God-given right of superiority over Scotland, Edward I forcibly removed the Scots’ royal regalia and holy relics, along with 65 chests containing the records of the kingdom. In short, he took all the objects of statehood, making sure that the Stone of Destiny was in his haul, it was removed from the abbey of Scone in August, 1296 and sent to Westminster Abbey. Here, it was enclosed in a new throne, the Coronation Chair, where it has been used ever since in the coronations of most monarchs of England and, from 1714, all the rulers of Great Britain.
However, on Christmas Day, 1950, four students from the University of Glasgow removed the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey and brought it back to Scotland. On the 11th of April, 1951, it turned up 500 miles away, at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey! Afterwards, it was once again taken to Westminster Abbey, but the actions of the students made people begin to ask Why wasn’t the stone in Scotland?
Finally, in 1996, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland on the 700th anniversary of its removal, under the proviso that it may be ‘borrowed’ for any future coronations at Westminster Abbey. It’s a truly remarkable object, and I could easily have spent all day reading about its history. There’s also a great film called The Stone of Destiny which tells the story of the four students who returned the Stone to Scotland. It’s a bit clichéd, and Charlie Cox’s Scottish accent is more than a little bit dreadful, but it’s a genuinely heart-warming tale, and I would really recommend it to anyone interested in the Stone’s history.
Finally, after a quick look around Saint Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest structure in Edinburgh (dating from 1130), and a moment of quiet reflection in The Scottish National War Memorial, it was time to leave Edinburgh Castle. Our visit was incredible, without a doubt 100% worth the admission fee. There was so much to see and do here, and exhibits to entertain people of all ages and historical inclinations. A really marvellous day out.
Photo credit to Wendy Li
Photo credit to Wendy Li
We walked along Princes Street on the way back to Justin’s house, recreating the opening scene of Trainspotting. Once again, the city was freezing but exhilarating, generating a genuine ‘Lust for Life’ in us all.
We got back to the house quite quickly, having finally learnt to navigate the tangled web of Edinburgh’s streets, and ordered delicious pizza from the incredible ‘Dough Pizza’. A truly ‘Perfect Day’.
Day Five: 20/11/16
Returned to Winchester today.
Annoyingly, the coach journey was delayed due to traffic and road closures, and ended up taking almost 15 hours altogether. A little bit hellish, but certainly not something that could detract from the overall experience of our trip.
Because, you see, it turned out that my expectations of Edinburgh weren’t ‘ridiculously high’ at all. This was something the city proved to me day after day, as I fell more deeply in love with it than I ever could have anticipated.
Another factor I couldn’t have anticipated is my new-found dependency on Irn Bru. Really have to thank Bryony, my enabler, for introducing me to that little habit. Definitely not something to regret though.
May have developed a slight Irn Bru dependency
Return coach journey
15 hour coach journey. Ouch.
Special thanks to my lovely companions Bryony (@bryonyjo31), Maddie (@maddiech_) and Wendy (@whitecinnamonsugar).
As you may know, I was on holiday over in northern Portugal just this summer gone. Although this was not such a museum/site centered visit as maybe those of Denmark and Norway, and I guess that is kind of the point of what I am going to talk to you about today. For many years, I thought it was just a Spanish issue the fact that our museums and galleries were few in number, poor in design and not very well-kept. Of course, please understand I am not talking of main attractions such as El Prado or other museums in Madrid and Barcelona. Places of national importance never suffer. I have a great example in Santander with the Museo Arqueologico de Cantabria: a museum that only has 10% of its collection on display, that opens as of when, and that kept the same sad look for over 2 decades…And we hold some pretty important Celtic heritage in there, you know? But I feared this may have been the same in other European countries in my visit to Italy. I was truly shocked by what was the so famous Academy in Florence, with the art of Michelangelo being kept inside, in this place that is easy to miss (or so it was in the year 2008), and that looked seriously run down. Perhaps I am just too used to the wonders of the French heritage industry. I mean, you all have been to France, maybe? You’d know that even the smallest village that has any artefact of historical/cultural interest is kept to the very best that can be, surrounded by information. The French have a wonderful ability to make an informative visit out of the finds of a detritus pit in a desolated archaeological site. Sure, I do not expect that all countries would have this ability, but it does make me think: what are we missing? I mean even here in the UK sometimes I get surprised by the lack of contextual information in sites managed by organisations such as English Heritage or The National Trust. Sometimes they seem to follow more business-like models, building events around these living treasures rather than for the sake of the history and knowledge preserved in them. And that is the problem, though, right? It is all about the money…
Whilst in Braga, I was lucky enough to make it down to the Museu D. Diogo de Sousa: the local archaeology museum. You can find the details here:
I must admit, for a small local museum, I found it pleasant. The fair to get in was more than reasonable, the material inside was certainly interesting – and to my surprise I found that even the actual shape of the museum has another cultural use: as a theatre for plays mostly in the spring and summer! That is a clever use of a multicultural space. I was disappointed to see we were the only people within the complex, however. Admittedly it was a hot sunny day, right after lunch, perhaps not the most propitious time for a museum visit. But even so. The gallery displays were very atmospheric, they reminded me to those used at the Nationalmuseet of Copenhagen: wood, glass, steel. Nice, modern, simple, useful. Some other items, like the many stone pillars found on the basement floor were simply displayed in the open, with different light uses, which I believe are done this way to ensure their preservation.
Nevertheless, and although I really enjoyed the collection, I found that there was a considerable lack of explanations: no contextual panels, no more than a few words written next to each artefact. I also found there was a fair amount of empty space. There was one monitor used to display different aspects of Portuguese history within the context of prehistory and the Roman empire – which is the main focus of the collection. But there was no sound to go with the images, and only one screen which looked rather small in such an empty wall. Then as you leave the museum it is very easy to miss the fact that there is a roman mosaic in the basement of the facilities – a lovely guide took us there because she could clearly see we were pretty lost.
As we left the museum, we landed on the roman baths just across the road. Strangely enough, this is a very easy place to miss. The facilities left me again with a mixed feeling: this site is actually still being excavated by the archaeology students at the university of Braga, because the found the remains of what seems to be an earlier theatre by the side of the dig. Yet there was all of 3 more people apart from ourselves. The staff was very friendly and asked us whether we wanted to watch the video in Portuguese or English. The thing is that before you go and actually see the site there is this small entrance hall with a big TV and some chairs were they show you a video explaining the changes in the uses of the baths – which was really cool by the way, and well informative. And then, off you go into this site…
The ruins of the baths are covered, and there is a few places where you can sit if you may. But that is pretty much it…Why?! These things are cool and in a remarkable preservation state for where they have been found! PLUS the theatre on the side which you can just about make out.
…We found a similar thing when we went to the beautiful Guimarães, where we visited the Museu Arqueológico Martins Sarmento, which is in a wonderful building that holds, according to the towns own tourism website: “principal referência da cultura castreja em Portugal e um dos mais importantes museus de todo o espaço europeu onde se manifestou aquela cultura”. In english: one of the best example of the castro culture in Portugal and one of the most important collections in europe regarding the subject…And trust me: it is.
There is an entire archaeological site thrown in those 19th century cases screaming history at you.
Yet, once again, we were the only visitors, and the lack of information and display use was devastating. Granted, we were given an A4 page with info on each display case…How can we be keeping these things like that?! And okay, I get it, this is probably the original display, which is super cool that has kept for this long, but…Did I miss something? I mean, I am sure I did. Anyway, this is the web to the museum http://www.csarmento.uminho.pt/sms.asp
Then, we have weird things right? Like in the same town you have the castle of Afonso Henriques, conqueror of Portugal, and all I could think about the display (which is awesome!) was: “Well, I am having such flashbacks of the castle of William the Conqueror in Falaise”.
Just wonderful amount of information, very creative, innovative and modern. I could have stayed there for hours and hours. And the little video with the cartoons explaining the history of the first king of Portugal was just A+ work. The same goes to the palace of the dukes of Braganza: collection that envies no other ducal manor house I’ve been to…
So what went “wrong” with the other sites? Or the amazing collection at Rates explaining the entire story of their quirky church, which by the sounds of it only me and mum heard probably for days according to the guide inside the gallery. And this was free by the way – the rest were not. Then we have the example of a superb museum (more about this at a later stage; watch this space) in Porto: World of Discoveries. An entire museum dedicated to the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Taking out the tickets, the receptionist asked us how did we know the museum was there! The very receptionist! And this museum was nothing like the others: this is a modern museum, with plenty of funding coming through, with temporary exhibitions that are multicultural and multifunded – and with a thematic restaurant on the top…And a wonderful gift shop. With information in like 5 or 7 different languages…
But that eyrie question…How did you know?…Were we not supposed to? Are we doing cultural visits wrong? Or perhaps we are the odd kind of tourists, going to a wonderful place like Portugal expecting something else than nice beaches and sunny weather? And if that is the case…what are we doing to our heritage industries? Because it sounds to me like we are deviating them from any real value, and taking away the power of knowledge from the public. And that, is not right. Public awareness needs to increase, potentially through a reconsideration of what heritage is and how we use it.
Welcome to another post related to our recent trip to the Norwegian capital! Today I will be giving you a quick review and visit to these 4 fantastic museums that are all placed in the peninsula of Bygdøy. You can get there either by boat service or on the bus, takes about 10-20 minutes from Oslo’s city centre depending on the method of transport that you take and the time of the day. These are the museums Alex and I wanted to see, but there are some more, so you could certainly get 2 days worth of visits in this area if you really wanted – we simply did not have time for the Holocaust Centre or the Maritime Museum! Now, I appreciate that 4 museums in one day seems like a lot, but do not let this scare you away, they are all actually not very big museums at all. And if you are willing to stretch the area of Bygdøy to a 2 day affair, then you can spread them out even more.
Let me give you a breakdown of our schedule for that day: Viking Ship Museum dead on the opening hour at 10:00 am, we finished there around 11:30 am, and walked for a couple of minutes to the Norwegian Folk Museum. We were done there by after lunch, around 1:oo pm roughly. Then we headed for the waterfront and decided we had time to see the Fram Museum, where we spent a little bit more than an hour. Finally we landed next door to the Kon Tiki Museum right before 3, having an hour exactly until the museum closed – we did not miss anything terribly important, apart from the film showing of the Oscar-winning documentary, for which they have specific shows during the day. In any case, the visit were not overwhelming (this was Alex’s judgement, not mine! He is the saner one, you can trust him), and the ship thematic really worked well, highlighting the individual contexts and really bringing forward how important boats have been for the Norwegian nation throughout all of history, and for different purposes. Now I wont go mad, expect a few pictures, videos and text reviewing out experience. In any case, I hope you get if nothing else a glimpse of a very interesting cultural enterprise!
Viking Ship Museum
I could not be happier than seen the fascinating viking age ships that have made such a deep mark in historiography – I was there, and with the ones from Denmark, this is all something I can tick off the list of things to do in life. The museum itself is not very big, and it does not have loads of material in exhibition, or explanatory panels, but to be honest – if you’re here is because you want to see the ships, and they are totally work the visit. This will only be a teaser as I have plans for a combo update with the ships of Roskilde too, so here you go:
It was incredibly difficult to photograph the boats with my incredibly poor equipment – aka my phone – so I decided at some point that video was useful – my comments and difficult for words show how boggled I was at this. Vid. 1 – Gokstad. Vid.2 – new museum competition.
All in all a fantastic place, but I would recommend now, knowing that they are planning on remodelling soon, that you wait and visit when that is sorted. Unless you are dying to go, in which case hurry up!
Norwegian Folk Museum
This was a very pleasant visit – very similar style and idea to the Open Air Museum in Copenhagen, but with more exhibitions. They have 2 buildings with small exhibits regarding local history about the Saami, the history of regional costume, and other items from Norway’s history from a domestic, rural and cultural point of view. This place has much more activity during the summer months – they have daily activities and different areas of the museum open. Some places were being improved or restored so I would suggest this may be better suited for warmer seasons. In any case, it was very quaint.
Buildings from the reconstructed Old Town.
Considered the best museum in Norway (period), this was not scheduled but as we had some time spare, we decided we should not go without seeing it. The museum is dedicated to the Norwegian expeditions to both poles, and I must say that, although it is really not my area of expertise, it was a great experience. I have taped most of our interaction in the museum, simply because it was fairly difficult due to the layout to take decent pictures. In addition, the museum is very modern in its approach to the story it tells so taping it allowed me to reflect this a bit better. I have to say, as a piece of contextualisation and suiting purpose to the materials displayed, is probably one of the best museums I have been in the last few years that achieves this greatly. The actual Fram ship is the centre piece o the exhibition – inside it there are displays from cabinets and objects within the boat, while the 3 levels created around the ship talk about the different expeditions. They even have an area dedicated for children to feel like a pole explorer. Overall, this museum gets a 5 star rating. And on a last comment, the museum shop is absolutely terrific, with some great books on the subject which are difficult to find elsewhere – so if you stop by, do consider taking some of those gems home with you.
The Kon-Tiki Museum
This is a museum that every humanist should visit – in my very modest opinion. This is the story of a man who did not give up his theory and vision despite the odds and the criticisms. This is the story of a man who even put his life at risk to proof a valid point regarding the interactions between the people in South America and the Pacific Islands, and beyond. Thor Heyerdahl, man and legend, and the work of a life time, all neatly displayed in this museum, with no ostentation, and no oversimplification of the matter, which is not easily achieved. The man who picked a raft boat and proved his peers wrong, or at least created reasonable doubt. If you can make it for the documentary showing, I am sure you would not regret it – unfortunately we could not make it, which I regret. But in any case the museum is worth a visit, they have the preserved balsas that Thor got made for his historical experiments, as well as some information regarding his involvement in the Easter Island archaeological excavation. This is not only a biographical piece about the man, but also a top piece of ethnographic, anthropological and archaeological research in a subject perhaps not very prominent in Europe.
And that is all for today folks – I hope these brief looks at these 4 amazing exhibitions gets your wanderlust going so you embark in your own cultural expedition to Norway. See you in the next update!
I recently got in touch with one of the deputy curators at the Royal Engineers museum to ask some questions about museums. As an historian who has found his field of study in memory and nation making, I am very interested in museums and I thought you guys might be interested; so for all you who are thinking about a career in curating, and those who want to know more about how curators work, then go no further!
Could you introduce yourself? What is your job title and what do you do at the museum, and perhaps what is the museum about?
My name is Danielle Sellers and I am the Deputy Curator (Collections Management) at the Royal Engineers Museum, Library & Archive. I have worked here for just over three years, starting as the Assistant Curator then moving into my current post about a year later.
As with any Museum the collection is at the heart of all we and it is continuously growing as the history of the Corps progresses. Collections Management is fundamental to our work preserving the collection and making it accessible to all of our users.
Collections Management is the term used for all of the work undertaken on the accurate recording and cataloguing, photographing and scanning, packing and storage, auditing and location control of every item in the collection. The role also involves managing donations offered to the Museum as well as all loans, incoming and outgoing. Hand in hand with these activities is the careful handling and conservation of items as well as the monitoring and controlling of the environmental conditions of our stores and displays.
I also line manage the Assistant Curator and supervise around 40 volunteers in my other role as the Volunteer Co-ordinator.
The Royal Engineers Museum, Library & Archive holds one of the foremost historical military collections in the country. Designated in 1999 as a museum of outstanding national and international significance, it traces the Royal Engineers roots from William the conqueror in 1066, through the Victorian period to modern conflict in Afghanistan. The story also includes the social and biographical histories of the men and women serving in the Royal Engineers as well as the history of their role, responsibilities and experiences within the British Army and the development of British military engineering.
What made you want to be a curator?
There is not a singular moment that made me think this is what I wanted to do, it was more of a gradual realisation. I had a love of Museums and Galleries from an early age and eventually realised that I wanted to immerse myself in this world. Initially I had no clear idea of what area I wanted to focus on but volunteering allowed me to work in a few different areas. I seemed to gravitate naturally to Collections Management, a role that allows direct contact with the collection, the heart of the Museum.
What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is getting to work with such an interesting collection, apart from the obvious items you expect to find in a military Museum we also have quite a good World Cultures collection including Chinese Silks, Zulu jewellery and First Nations clothing. One of my favourite parts of the collection though is the photography archive, we have over 600 albums and thousands of loose prints dating from 1850s onwards.
What is your most favourite item in the collection?
That is a very difficult question, it can vary depending on what I have been working on recently. I have already mentioned the photography collection and I am also fascinated by the weapons collection we have. However, there is one item that is always in my mind, it might not be what I would call a favourite but it is an object that has stuck with me since I joined the Museum. One of the first items I catalogued was a French prayer book from the Frist World War that had been used to record a Sappers thoughts and feelings. It was not a journal as such but somewhere he could record the horrors he had seen, he even noted down that if he died while at war he wanted this little book buried with him.
What does the RE museum try and present to the public?
Our role is to preserve and present the military and civil heritage of the Royal Engineers, promote scholarship and provide an excellent, accessible, relevant and stimulating education experience for today’s audience, including the public, students, schools, the Armed Forces and the Corps and to contribute to the recruitment, motivation and inspiration of today’s soldier.
You get a lot of items donated to the museum, how do you decide what is valuable to the collection and what isn’t?
Yes, the Museum still receives a lot of donation offers, this peaked in 2014 with the Centenary Commemoration with an average of 30 individual offers a month. Deciding what donations to accept into the collection can be complicated and it is very difficult saying no to anything offered to the Museum. You are aware that the material being offered to you is normally very important to the person but unfortunately there is criteria that needs to be met and there is also a physical limit on the amount of material we can store. As such the Museum has a Collections Policy in place which states what we will collect and what we won’t, this also takes into account having the right staffing levels to allow the correct recording, storage and care of the material.
The decision process is taken by the Collections Committee that meets once a month to discuss all items that have been offered to the Museum. Before the meeting each item is looked at in relation to the Collections Policy and the Museum’s database, this is to check that it is in line with the former and that we do not already hold an example in the collection. This information is then taken to the committee and each donation offer is discussed and a decision taken.
Museums take on many volunteers, why are volunteers important to a museum?
Volunteers are incredibly important to Museums due to the variety of experience and outlooks that they offer to the work they are involved with. I would like to think it is a relationship that is mutually beneficial, we can offer relevant experience and development of new skills for those seeking a career in the Heritage industry. While the volunteers provide the additional help to carry out projects that are vital to Museums. For example we undertook an audit of our stored collection and this involved training a team of volunteers in object handling, auditing, cataloguing, photography and packing. It worked very well and changed the way we approach volunteering. I really value the work volunteers carry out and having volunteered for 8 years prior to my first paid Museum role understand how important the relationship is for both participants.
What role do you think museums play in society?
I think the Museum’s role in society is to provide a place to care and preserve national heritage for future generations, creating an environment that is informative and enjoyable, which can educate everyone.
Any advice for those wanting to go into the museum and heritage sector?
Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! It might seem obvious but volunteering is vital, qualifications are always going to come first but without volunteer experience you are unlikely to get through to the interview stage. Whilst I have an MA in History of Art I do not have an MA in Museum Studies which is often listed in role descriptions and I know that the practical experience I had was vital in getting my first role in a Museum in lieu of this. Also, if you are unsure what area you wish to work in, for example Collections Management, Exhibitions or Learning then volunteering is a great way of trying these out before embarking on your career.
A big Thank You to Danielle for taking the time to answer my questions, and I recommend that if you are ever in Medway, go check out the Royal Engineers museum, it’s a great place!
Ok, more from my trip to Denmark – yes, I do enjoy my cultural raves…- Today is just a walk through/review of the Round Tower and the National Gallery of Denmark. The reason why these 2 have been chosen – aside from the ones I have already talked about – is because they were in a way or another formative or educational from my point of view. I got to experience a part of history I was not familiar with and this gave me more insight into the country I was visiting and its culture. So, I hope that with my pictures and quick explanations, you get a hint of this!
The Round-Tower is located in the city center of Copenhagen and is one of the most symbolic monuments of all Denmark.
The building is 34.8 metres high, and the only way to access the top is a spiral ramp, which is 209 meters long and twists 7 times and a half around its hollow core. This is a unique feature, unmatched in European architecture. The venue is both an exhibition hall, cultural centre as well as the oldest working observatory in Europe. It was erected by King Christian IV between 1637-1642. The objective was for this structure to hold a university library, a student church – to which it is still attached, and the astronomical observatory. The library fit its purpose up until 1861. This university library must have been one of the largest in Denmark. Opened in 1657, it used to host a collection of 10000 books. After the collection was moved elsewhere, this section of building was used for various purposes, including an art studio as well as the depot for the Zoological Museum. Nowadays it has been restored to its original function as a learning environment – exhibition hall. Right above this room, is the Bell-Ringer Loft – currently holding the bells for the Church of the Trinity – annexed to the Rundertaarn. Instead it is used as another gallery with artefacts related to the building, as well as providing a look into the 1729 dated pinewood beams that form part of the structure. This part of the building is older due to its reconstruction after the great fire of Copenhagen (1728). On the way up to the observatory one can find the planetarium – a 20th century replacement for the original 3 dimensional model by Bayer from c.1740.
Finally, we reach the observatory – it wasn’t until I was up there that it occurred to me how important feature of Danish history this was. Since Peder Nightingale in the 13th century, Denmark has had a long history of astronomers. The most famous of which are Tycho Brahe and Christian Longomontanus – in honour of whom the facility appears to have been built. Brahe however died before its completion, yet Longomontanus seems to have been one of the first people to observe the firmament from this location as the first professor of astronomy as the university. Perhaps Brahe’s most important work – multiple instruments aside – was the star-table that explained in accurate ways the movement of the moon and position of certain planets. Many say this work was crucial for Kepler’s laws later on. Ever since, the Rundertaarn has been
SMK – National Gallery of Denmark
The second part of todays post is regarding the SMK – National Gallery of Denmark.Again, like with the Nationalmuseet, I have been in many great galleries (NG in London, El Prado, Le Louvre, Uffizi), so in that sense I’m not inexperienced with big visual collections. And in that sense, perhaps the SMK cannot rival with the quantity of brilliant pieces that others may. However, what I think was the highlight of the exhibition was the opportunity to learn about some Danish and Northern European art! Europe is so prolific, with great artists all over, that somehow, somewhat, I was ashamed that the art historian in me couldn’t name a single Scandinavian artist that I genuinely knew – or liked! So this was rather enlightening. Pictures to come – In addition, the actual building itself was magnificent 19th century built with 3 levels – reminded me a lot of the Kunsthistorische from Vienna.
Yet this building is in itself a modern art revelation. As the collection grows, it is obvious the space within becomes smaller. Many have been the museums and historical buildings I have seen butchered by a clumsy modern addition or that have been dismembered in different buildings forming a complex where to hold the exhibition. Here however, Scandinavian design shines – Instead of breaking a wall or attaching something to it, they have expanded the back of the SMK with glass panels and metallic beams, opening the space and bringing in the bigger picture, the outside world that inspires these paintings. In fact, the display is rather artistic as it opens into the botanic gardens. I couldn’t think of a better way of creating a gallery for modern art than this. It just felt right.
In any case – the building is pretty big and it hold several collections. Time was precious so I had to choose. So I decided the way forward was: European art 1300-1800, Danish and Nordic art 1750-1900, and Scandinavian art since the 1900s. The European art gallery walked through works from Italy, Holland and the Flemish artists, France and its impact on Danish taste and culture, and a general overview of Scandinavian artists around this period.
The gallery on Danish and Nordic art 1750-1900 has a pretty self-explanatory name, but I will elaborate a bit more. The way they have designed this section is by contextualisation. Therefore you get introduced into Danish art and its context within Northern Europe and other Scandinavian work. This is not divided in sections with only Danish, Swedish, Norwegian or Finnish art pieces, but rather it displays them all together, allowing the viewer to see the different artistic developments and influences across this area of Europe. Finally, there is also a smaller section which reflect on the borrowings from mainland Europe and the dialogue between Danish art and the input of other countries. Personally, I preferred this arrangement better than the one from the European gallery – I think it really helped seeing the cultural associations and trends, so for the ignorant I was, this was a much easier way to get tuned into Northern art.
And with these, I close my third post on Denmark. Watch out for more to come!