After stepping off the Holborn tube stop, we followed the signs to the Sir John Museum and almost passed it on the street. It fits in so well with its neighboring houses that we nearly passed it. The only difference between the museum and the neighboring homes were two signs, one by the door and one on the gate. It’s set in a picturesque neighborhood across from Lincoln Inn Fields. The museum is a monument to Sir John, a premier British architect, from Sir John, a premier British architect. Sir John decided that instead of leaving his home and belongings to his children, he would create a museum that would house his eclectic collection of sculptures, paintings, and tchockes. While interesting and brief, the museum was almost confusing in layout and design of exhibitions. We understand that the layout is based on the three houses that he combined to create his home, but the exhibitions seemed to be crammed into whatever corner they might fit. Example, large stone sculptures over two stories tall in a hole in the ground floor to the basement. It was just a bit confusing trying to understand the collections left by Sir John, while at the same time being surprised by how the exhibitions were presented. Many times, we found ourselves considering how the exhibition fit into a particular room instead of how that part of the collection reflected on Sir John. Also the museum wasn’t so much a reflection on Sir John’s work rather than a convenient way to showcase his eccentricities in the form of artifacts from places other than Britain. The collections themselves were not very well presented and there was very little in the way of an explanation. The only guide was a 2 quid pamphlet offered at the main door; unfortunately we are cheap college students, so we went without the pamphlet to find our own path. Normally forging your own path in a museum is enjoyable, but within such a small and poorly laid out museum it was more of a hardship than a joy. We enjoyed the architecture of the house and that a piece of such beautiful architecture and love is so well maintained and that it was so beautifully repaired after sustaining enemy fire in 1941. However, except for its brevity, it just wasn’t the museum for us.
September 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment
September 4th, 2009 · No Comments
I don’t consider identity to be one’s race, religion, gender, colour, sexual preference, or class. These are all things that other people use to identify and classify other people. For example, I would define my identity by who I am rather than what I am. I may be a white middle-class female but that is only what I am defined as, not who I am as a person. It is often hard for people to distinguish who people are from what they are, because the who is a lot harder to define than the what.
I believe that a lot of problems arise from people confusing the ‘what’ with the ‘who’. Racism results from people judging others by ‘what’ they are rather than ‘who’ they are. A second generation Bangladeshi like Magid, from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, is unable to be fully accepted into British culture because of his skin color, despite the fact that he was raised in England and has lost most of his ties with his Bangladeshi culture. He and others like him are discriminated against because the dominant culture make assumptions about who he is based on how he looks. For this reason Magid turns to an Islamic Radical group for support and acceptance.
Stereotypes are vehicles that people use when confusing what someone is with who they are. Yesterday when we all went to visit the Gurdwara I had some preconcived notions about what I thought Sikhs would be like; I thought they would be sexist, conservative, closed minded, and discriminating. Once I began to listen to our guide speak I realized that I could not be more wrong. By getting to know him, even just for a short time, I was able to see past what his is (Sikh) and past all the stereotypes that I associated with his religion, and learn who he is. I feel that in order for there to be more tolerance in this world more people need to step out of their comfort zone and realize that what a person is is not who they are, and furthermore it is not their identity.
September 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment
It would be easy to provide a thoughtful, all-encompassing understanding of museums in London. I have tried to give some idea of the sprawling elegance of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, the comparative edge provided by the Tate Modern, and the gaping expanse filled by the British Museum. All inspire and churn the mind (or stomach) in different ways. Yet it would be foolhardy to say you can provide an “easy” nor “all-encompassing” understanding of museums in London (not that anyone has, necessarily). A double-threat stands in your way—The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Sir John Soane’s Museum.
I walked away from both of these buildings baffled. It took much effort not to dismiss the V&A as immediately nonsensical, so I settled on “eclectic” as the best way to describe it. The V&A has been described in previous posts as an enjoyable hodgepodge of items without ties to anything distinctly British and breaking from any sort of natural organization. I agree with these perceptions of the museum, though it did, admittedly, take some time for me to reach this conclusion. I enjoyed the individual displays, but I got caught up with the confusing flow of the individual displays and the building as a whole. The display dedicated to Japan, for instance, did not contain a natural progression of Japanese art; a piece of art from the 21st century rested in the same case as centuries-old clothing. How does this make sense? Is the purpose to jolt the accepted model for museums? I have asked others and myself these questions and have come to appreciate the fresh perspective held by the V&A. It purposefully provides a jolt, but it takes varying amounts of time to recover, reflect, and, ultimately, revisit.
That in mind, I have yet to recover from the Sir John Soane’s Museum.
The history of the museum gives some indication of what to expect from the famed architect Sir John Soane and his conversion of his home into a museum in the 19th century. The collection was impressive in size and range – sculptures, paintings, books, furniture, pottery, figurines, etc. Once again, I appreciated the attention paid to detail in the cataloguing and presentation of the items, but I got caught up with the following questions: Why is this here? Why is this important? Who would benefit from this? I did not learn very much from the museum. (This does not include my sudden, pressing need to redefine my understanding of the word “museum”.) Granted, this may have been a result of the ‘jolt’ provided by walls lined with statues and other artifacts with little to no descriptors. Accustomed to the museum model that gave you some indication of what you viewed, I never took the initiative to ask more about the items lining every square inch of the walls. (I should mention here that the V&A did maintain this model.)
So, I try to assign a new word to describe this outlier of sorts. ‘Eclectic’ cannot apply to this museum, for a common theme of antiquity and classicism prevailed despite the range of the items. ‘Nonsensical’ does not apply either, for Soane had a set purpose in designing the museum for students (the education portion of the museum continues to this day).
For now, I will settle on ‘unusual’ and ‘out of place’ as ways to show Soane’s Museum as an outlier that expands the range of museums in London. The V&A did fall into this category when taken at face value. Perhaps I will come to the same conclusions when reflecting on Soane’s Museum.
Moreover, I hope to come to some conclusions about what each museum has to say about one’s British identity/identity in London, whether or not that is the museum’s immediate goal. This is a question that I have seen in previous posts but I have not been able to answer. I welcome your thoughts on either of these museums or your ideas on the role played by museums in shaping identity (if you’ve begun to formulate them…I cannot get my head around it just yet).
September 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment
Even though I am one, I rarely feel like a tourist in London. Perhaps the fact that there are hundreds of other tourists makes me feel a bit less conspicuous when I snap photos of St. Paul’s and Big Ben, or perhaps it’s because I truly feel like I’m getting to know this city bit by bit (I have a good chunk of the Tube map in my head now, which amazes me). I readily call London, Bloomsbury, and the Arran House “home” in a way I adamantly refuse to label Carlisle and Dickinson, and when I helped an American couple from California find their way on the Tube the other day, they asked if I lived here, and I automatically answered yes but didn’t realize what I had said until ten minutes later. Despite the fact that we’re often looked at on the Tube or the street for being loud and having different accents, and even though we will probably all be known as “the American” in our various social circles in Norwich, I feel more at home in London than I have ever felt outside of my Connecticut bubble.
Yesterday, however, I felt like a tourist and an outsider for the first time in a while. Southall immediately felt foreign the second I got off the train. Perhaps this is because of my relative lack of experience with England outside of greater London, or perhaps it was because of the street signs and advertisements in Urdu, but Southall only felt more foreign the farther we got into it. Even just walking down the street, I felt that we were being looked at and wondered about much more closely and obviously than we often are around Tottenham Court Road, for example. From what I’ve paid attention to, many Brits will hear a bunch of loud young adults with American accents walking down the pavement, and they seem to give us a cursory glance when they’re sure we’re not looking before walking on. In Southall, on the street as well as in the gurdwara itself, people didn’t seem to hide their blatant staring at our group. This didn’t feel unfriendly, necessarily, or undeserved: Southall isn’t exactly an area that sees a lot of tourists, especially young, mostly white Americans, and I bet many were wondering why the hell we had reason to come to Southall. In the gurdwara, people didn’t seem to hide their curiosity whatsoever, but this time I felt a slight embarrassment: even though we were all being respectful and obeying their customs, I wondered what they thought of us being there and if they felt mocked by our curiosity, our sometimes comical scarf-wearing, and our close observation. I felt as though we might be intruding into their sacred space, perhaps one of the few places in Britain where they are among their own kind and NOT the outsiders, simply by being there and treating the gurdwara like it was another tourist stop on the tour of England and as a space that does double-duty as a museum as well as a space of worship like Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s.
As we discussed in class today, for many of us, being an outsider is an infrequent and uncomfortable experience, but I wholeheartedly agree with such experiences being beneficial, educational, and healthy. However, after feeling like a complete outsider for the first time in a while, I found myself reflecting on how the gurdwara is probably one of the only places in the area where the Sikhs aren’t the outsiders and aren’t given strange looks for having turbans and beards. For the hour or however long they’re in the gurdwara, they are able to be themselves and focus on what matters most to them, but in the outside world, where they’re not even allowed to participate fully in the requirements of their religion (since they aren’t allowed to carry knives/swords, and in some professions, might not be able to have long hair or beards), they are constantly bombarded with strange looks and being “foreign” just because of the way they look. I wonder what this does to a Sikh’s identity, especially through the various generations and levels of devoutness. We have read several books on the concepts of being an immigrant and a permanent outsider in England, but since Sikhs can perhaps stick out even MORE due to the physical markers of their religion. I also think that identity varies from individual to individual, even though two might come from the same place at the same age and live in the same new environment, and I regret not asking our guide more about the Sikh identity in a secular, western community.
September 4th, 2009 · No Comments
Since I am beginning to feel the crush of pressure to visit all the required museums while in London, I spent an afternoon in the Cabinet War Rooms/Winston Churchill Museum. In truth, I was not particularly moved by either. I think I lack a lot of the personal feeling involved in seeing such an important aspect of British history simply because I am not British. Churchill as a national icon means much less to me, an American, than it might for my English counterpart. Still, I most enjoyed listening to portions of Churchill’s speeches and writing down bits that inspired me. I also was interested in learning how he constructed his speeches, and found it endearing that he used notes only after he “dried up” at an important event. In the Cabinet War Rooms, I was struck most by learning that the lights in one of the most important rooms were literally never shut off for six years because of the war. I also felt badly for the people who worked such long, tedious hours in the bunker without much sunlight or rest. However, it’s also somewhat moving that these women and men cared so much for their country that they were willing to put forth so much time and effort, and I wonder if I would do the same for my own country.
After the museums, I stumbled upon St. James Park and decided to wander through. In doing so, I ended up in front of Buckingham Palace leaning on a wall, and it was there that I first truly FELT that I am in London. I was standing in the midst of a series of tour groups, many of which were not speaking English. I looked down upon the water moving, people walking alongside, a field with people sitting and relaxing, and a little coffee shop, all of which were surrounded by trees. Out of the trees rose the London Eye and the very top of Big Ben. It was the most picturesque view I’ve encountered thus far, and I don’t think that I’ll be forgetting it anytime soon. To me, it really captured the essence of London as I currently see it: a vital place with small tranquil spaces mixed throughout, the importance of tourism, national pride surrounding the royal family, history mixed with the present, and an ability to feel at home even for those not native to London. I wasn’t able to take a photograph because my camera is broken, but I would definitely be interested in seeing the places that have most inspired everybody else in their travels in the past two weeks.
September 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment
For a week and a half I’ve been telling people that St. Paul’s is my favorite building in London, even though I’d yet to go inside. I think it’s something about how it fits snugly in the city skyline, and yet at the same time seems totally foreign and unique. I prefer it to Big Ben as the quintessential symbol of downtown London and prefer it to Westminster Abbey as a church. Even if those photos of the dome standing tall during the blitz were doctored for propaganda purposes, they move me because even today I can get a sense of how inspiring they must have been to Londoners and indeed all Brits.
That said, I was indeed impressed by the inside when I had a chance to see it. Although it’s certainly ornate, it seemed simpler and less cluttered than Westminster Abbey. The inherent awkwardness of St. Paul’s is that it has become the church most associated with elaborate monuments and graves to military men, and therefore is seen as glorifying war. I thought it was interesting that the hourly intercom prayer focused mostly on making the world a more peaceful place, seemingly to counteract the church’s obvious image. Anyone else notice that?
In retrospect I’d rather have climbed up to the dome (next time I will) but instead I chose to go down to the crypt to hear a little more from John. I really admire John’s ability to do what he does as well as he does it. The best I can describe what he does so well is point out the interesting minutiae while at the same time linking that back to an overall narrative which gives one an impression of what the particular place really means as a whole. Most tours, both audio and human, just don’t achieve this.
Staying for choral evensong was a good choice, although we should have sat up with the congregation rather than back with the tourists to really hear the choir sing. Nonetheless, the service was something to behold both visually and sonically. An organ and a great small choir in an amazing space is just about as good a musical experience as can be had, I think. The one problem I had with the experience was tourists just milling about the sides of the church during the service. During mass at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome I saw this, too, and couldn’t believe people felt comfortable doing it. I understand why St. Paul’s (and the Abbey, for that matter) are and should be viewed as a museum to British history and religion, but I feel there should be times when it is a museum only and times when it is a place of worship only.
Not for reason of comparison, but just for the sake of convenience, I’d also like to add my thoughts on the guardwara (which we were lucky enough to not have to treat like a museum). I was glad to have a guide who was eager to talk to us about his faith but was not a rehearsed guide. This gave us a chance for a more candid exchange and probably a much more authentic experience. I noticed how, twice, other Sikhs just came up to hear what he had to say to us about Sikhism (and they just seemed interested, not wanting to correct him or know who we were).
One thing I should have mentioned this morning, during our brief discussion of St. Paul’s and the guardwara and Christianity and Sikhism, was that Sikhism is a religion that has a history of religious violence (despite its very pacifistic core). Some of you may have noticed a sign yesterday asking Sikhs to remember those who died in Operation Blue Star on its 25th anniversary. This was an operation ordered by Indian PM Indira Gandhi against Punjabi Sikh separatists who were amassing weapons in a temple. In the wake of Blue Star, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Sikhs, like members of other religions, struggle with when to take up the sword in defense of what they believe to be justice and honor and when to turn the other cheek, so to speak.
September 4th, 2009 · No Comments
For those of you who are not my facebook friends or who don’t have a facebook (GAWK!), I wanted to share with you a few great group photos I have acquired over the trip so far. I couldn’t think of any better way to share them than to post them in a blog with our favorite word as a title. Enjoy this juxtaposition of different group photos!
Click on photos for larger image.
September 4th, 2009 · No Comments
A couple weekends ago, a fellow classmate informed me that William Shakespeare is the best author of all time. Though I disagreed wholeheartedly with him, it seems that I am in the minority on this point in London. Shakespeare hasn’t been alive for many years now but (as many people have noted before me) his presence is still incredibly pervasive in English life. The revised version of the Globe Theater is filled nightly with people clamoring to get a taste of the authentic Shakespeare experience. Right across the river, the National Theater makes sure to have a Shakespeare play in its rotation regularly- something that is always well attended. After watching an entertaining but incredibly over-the-top version of Troilus and Cressida, I was prepared to write a blog about how Shakespeare in England has turned into just another tourist attraction. I paid more attention to the audience at the National Theater’s presentation of All’s Well That Ends Well though and realized that I saw more people than those who toted fanny packs around the city all day (items that I’m happy to report I have seen only a small number of). The over one thousand seats that the theater has were filled with more than a few tourists but also many who actually knew what the correct response to ‘cheers’ is (something that I’m still trying to figure out). So what? Two major theaters are showing Shakespeare plays- is that so exciting? Maybe not. But walking along the streets, you are guaranteed to see big posters advertising for Jude Law in Hamlet, Judy Dench in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other celebrities in lead roles in Shakespeare’s plays. Clearly, the man is still alive and well in London. Again, this might not seem that interesting considering he is known as such an infamous figure not only in the arts but in history in general. But the man has been gone for over 300 years now! Many other playwrights have produced excellent works (some that are arguably even better than anything Shakespeare has ever written) yet none of them have their shows playing in multiple theaters across the city or in annual festivals. I can’t accept that his popularity still hinges on the fact that he’s Shakespeare. Even the brightest star eventually fades away. I wonder the attraction and/or loyalty to the bard isn’t more a devotion to something else- a devotion to a desired ‘English’ identity that is found in the infamous Shakespeare. This may be a stretch but it could be an interesting point to consider.
While I was surprised to see so many London locals interested in seeing a Shakespeare play, the audience was not an incredibly diverse one at either show. The locals that were at the show were seemingly (by this untrained eye’s standards) predominantly middle-upper class, white, elderly people. There are exceptions to every rule, but this was the crowd that I most observed while there. This isn’t to say that the theaters were too pricey for the majority of Londoners. You can buy a ticket to stand in the Globe for five pounds and a ticket to sit in the National Theater for ten. While some might not have money to throw away to the theater, five pounds for entertainment is truly reasonable. Still, despite the reasonable prices, the crowd that was attracted to the show seemed to be of a certain stature. I think it’s also worth noting that neither of these shows is considered one of Shakespeare’s big hitters and yet each theater was filled as one might expect for a Hamlet or Macbeth production. Clearly it’s not the show that is so attractive but rather the playwright. And why? I would argue that Shakespeare represents an identity of old London. He represents a more homogeneous London. London today is anything but homogenous. It’s incredibly diverse and is only becoming more so with each day that passes. With the word of the trip being ‘juxtaposition’, this diversity and change is clear to even the eye of an outsider. Is holding onto Shakespeare as an image for the ‘good ol’ England a means of coping with these changes? England has had many famous icons throughout its history but few (that I’m aware of) have been so closely connected to their national pride/make-up. So while the Beatles might have brought fame to the country, Shakespeare painted a picture of what English society was like. It was a society that may have been full of class division but one that knew the Classics, was incredibly mannerly, and conversed in witty and intelligent ways. Is Shakespeare’s continued prevalence a means of keeping that identity in place? I’m not entirely certain. An argument could be made on either side. Maybe people truly never tire of his shows. I would suggest that after three hundred years, picking up some Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill might be a good idea.