Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Entries Tagged as '2010 MatthewM'

My Last Days at the Greenhouse Trust

May 7th, 2011 · No Comments

During my last two volunteer visits to the Greenhouse Trust, I was entrusted with more responsibilities than previous visits, which allowed for more insight into how the organisation works.  I also worked slightly longer shifts in order to complete my 20 hours.  On April 16, Tigger assigned me to the kitchen of the Greenhouse’s Cafe, which was very different from my previous experiences at the Greenhouse. I acted as a kind of sous chef, cutting vegetables, shredding cabbage and the like for the different dishes that they serve.  After being demoted to the position of dishwasher (not through any action of my own, but merely a lack of jobs for me to do), a position that I held for nearly an hour, I was tasked with making hummus (or houmous, if you want to be all British about it), which I feel was a major promotion.  The best part was having the very houmous that I made on a jacket potato for lunch that afternoon.

On May 7, I was back in the shop, as Tigger had to prepare for an organic Wine Tasting that evening.  This required him to be out of the shop for the vast majority of my shift, which left me to run the shop myself.  I was quite alright with this, and before he left, Tigger tasked me with preparing an order for him.  This was particularly interesting because the order form contained the place of origin of all the products in the shop.  The shop’s mission is to highlight both locally sourced and health foods, which sometimes contradict each other, making the places of origin very interesting.  In addition to a large number of things from Norfolk and Suffolk, some of the supplies came from China, India, Turkey, Ecuador, and even Palestine!  Because Tigger severely underestimated my skill at using Microsoft Excel, what he thought would take me several hours only took 20 minutes, leaving me time to participate my regular activities whilst watching the shop, namely stocking the shelves and perusing the reading material in the shop.

The Greenhouse Shop

The Greenhouse Shop Storeroom

The shop was quite brisk for most of my shift compared to how it normally is (a fact I assume has something to do with the Football celebration in town today), so I was kept quite busy.  At one point, I actually had three customers simultaneously, which is almost unheard of at the Greenhouse.  This also kept me stocking the shelves quite a bit, which made for some good exercise.  In my downtime, I found several interesting magazines pertaining to environmentalism, including the cover story of the new issue of the New Internationalist, explaining how to convince a climate change denier to change their mind about climate change.  It was very well-written, and will be useful to me in the future.  I also glanced through Adbusters, an American monthly anti-consumerist magazine, where I learned that young children are being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given anti-psychotics meant for adults.  They attribute this trend to doctors getting paid by drug companies to test their meds of kids.  This was rather shocking, and though it was not related at all to the Greenhouse or my academic/career interests, it was interesting to read about all the same.  Just before the end of my shift, I was flipping through the Greenhouse cookbook to kill a few minutes, and I came across the comic below, which I am posting solely for the viewing pleasure of my Dr. Who-loving comrades.

A Doctor Who-related environmental cartoon

Dates: 16/4 and 7/5

Time: 10-4

Hours: 6 each, 12 total

Total Hours: 20

Supervisor: Tigger

Tags: 2010 MatthewM

Doing an Inventory? That’s What Tiggers Do Best!!

April 2nd, 2011 · No Comments

Today was my second day volunteering at the Greenhouse Trust in Norwich.  Since all UK businesses must take an inventory of all their stock at the beginning of every business year (which starts April 1 nationwide), I was tasked with calculating the total value of all the products in the Greenhouse’s shop.  This was made significantly easier by the fact that I was given a list of the recommended selling price of every product and the amount on the shelves and in the store.  I just had to do some simple addition and multiplication to get the total values of the stock, which I gave to Tigger, who was obviously very appreciative.  This took up about the first hour of my four hour shift.  The rest was spent in my regular responsibilities of running the till and restocking shelves.  Today was a very slow day customer-wise (about three total customers came in the whole time I was there), so I was able to spend a lot of time perusing the shop’s collection of environmental books.  I picked up several interesting ones, including The People’s Manifesto by Mark Thomas, who went around the UK asking people what they wanted the government to do prior to the 2010 election.  Some of the suggestions were a bit far out, like forbidding people in support of a National ID from owning curtains, but it was still an interesting read.  The other, Seven Years to Save the Planet by Bill McGuire, was more pertinent to my academic interests.  McGuire, a world-famous volcanologist, has determined that the citizens of the world have seven years (as of 2009) to change their resource use habits before permanent damage is done.  He focuses on basic questions concerning global climate change, obviously directing his writing to someone who isn’t an expert, which makes it very accessible.  But enough of the book report.  My next day spent at the Greenhouse will be in two weeks, which hopefully will be a bit more exciting than today.

I completely forgot to take pictures this time, but I will include a picture of the shop and hopefully Tigger in my next post.

Date: 2/4/11

Time: 10-2

Hours: 4 Total: 8

Supervisor: Tigger

Tags: 2010 MatthewM

T-I-Double Ga-ER. That Spells…

March 19th, 2011 · No Comments

Tigger, who aside from being a bouncy tiger who hangs out with an overweight bear, undersized piglet, a couple of kangaroos, huffalumps, and woozels in a forest that spans a hundred acres, is also the name of my supervisor at the Greenhouse Trust.  The Greenhouse Trust was opened in Norwich in 1994 to educate the public of Norwich and Norfolk about “efficient and effective use of energy, land resources, water, transport, waste recycling and other environmental issues” among other things.  They operate out of a Victorian era printing office, which they have refurbished over the last 17 years to be a model for energy efficiency.  The building boasts two solar arrays, three solar hot water arrays, recycled paper insulation, cork wall framing, and a system for recycling rainwater for flushing toilets and washing dishes.

The Greenhouse Trust

They operate a cafe and a food shop, which sells everything from fair trade chocolate, hot chocolate and organic soap to organic wine, beer, whiskey, and sherry, plus various grains and other foodstuffs.  This is where I’m going to be working during my time at the Greenhouse.  My job is to run the till and to restock shelves, which I do with Tigger.  The shop doesn’t get many customers, so I have plenty of downtime to talk to Tigger about the Greenhouse’s goals and mission, or to read the plethora of environmental books and magazines that the shop stocks.

I expect this to be an extremely useful and rewarding experience.  Not only does the Greenhouse focus on two issues (alternative energy and fair trade) that I am passionate about, but it also provides a fantastic experience to learn about things like grey water usage and insulation that I don’t know much about.  It is a relaxed environment filled with great people.  I can’t wait to go back in two weeks to spend more time there!

Date: 19/03/11

Time: 10-2

Hours: 4

Supervisor: Tigger

Tags: 2010 MatthewM

Green with Envy

September 20th, 2010 · No Comments

That’s what every city in the world should be, because they don’t have as much green as London does.  No, I don’t mean money, I mean real green, in the form of parks.

As I write this, I am sitting in my favorite of London’s parks, Regent’s Park.  In fact, I didn’t realize that it was my favorite until I ventured here, knowing that I needed to write about parks and wanting to get away from the city for a while without going far from the Arran House.  After consulting my A to Z, I found that we’ve been living for a month not 15 minutes away from one of London’s most beautiful parks, which is saying something, because London has some wonderful ones.  Of these, I have visited three, and they are probably London’s most famous: Regent’s, Hyde, and St. James.

I’ll start with Regent’s.  As I said, I came here needing to be somewhere quiet, and most importantly, green.  I love the outdoors, and was feeling like I hadn’t gotten enough of them while in London.  Regent’s quickly fixed that though.  Probably best known for its prominent role in the 101 Dalmatians and James Bond (MI6 is near the Park), Regent’s Park is situated on 410 acres in Marylebone.  Its perfectly trimmed flowerbeds, beautiful fountains, and huge open spaces are a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively.  The one thing that really differentiates Regent’s from the other parks I will talk about is the lack of tourists.  Regent’s doesn’t have anything particularly special for tourists, as opposed to Hyde and St. James, so it is both less busy and quieter.  It also houses the London Zoo (yes, the one that Harry Potter went to in the first book), for any animal lovers out there.

Regent's Park

Next up is Hyde, or specifically Kensington Gardens, which is contiguous with Hyde, and is often thought of as part of the same park (technically its not… I also visited Hyde, and it’s much the same as the Gardens).  Like Regent’s, it features wide open spaces, fountains, and gardens.  However, it also contains Kensington Palace (which also serves as a shrine to Princess Diana), the world-famous Peter Pan statue, and the Prince Albert Memorial, which all attract a lot of tourists, which increases the “busyness” of the park, and changes its atmosphere.  It is still a very nice park, but it just doesn’t have the feel of Regent’s.

Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Gardens

Lastly, St. James Park.  Once again, lots of open space, water features, and flowers.  The big tourist attractions here completely surround the park, rather than being contained in it.  These include, but are not limited to, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace.  This brings a lot of people to the park which, while not a bad thing, makes it feel crowded, which is not how parks should be in my mind.  It is an absolutely beautiful park though, despite its well-publisized history of, well, err… you know.  For those that don’t, Edward II had dozens of children, none with his wife, and loved spending time in the park.  I’ll let you do the math.

To wrap up, I’d like to mention that London’s parks have really cool birds.  At Kensington and St. James, there are tons of brown geese and small little birds, pictures of which I’ve attached below.  At Regent’s though, they seem to have completely different breeds of birds, which you can also see below.  St. James also has pelicans, which I unfortunately don’t have pictures of.

I have no idea why the birds would be so different between one park and another, unless these birds were purposefully introduced to their respective parks, which would be a conclusion requiring an understanding of London parks history that I lack.  Anyone with more insight, please feel free to chime in.

Bird characteristic of the populations found at Regent's Park

Swan, characteristic of the bird populations at Kensington Gardens and St. James Park

Tags: 2010 MatthewM

Religion? What Religion?

September 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

London is a very funny (not comedic, but more ironic) place in many ways.  One of the most obvious examples of this is how it deals with religion.  Londoners are surrounded on all sides by beautiful churches and cathedrals that were built from sometime after the Great Fire of 1666 (and maybe before… Any MEMS majors that want to correct me are more than welcome to) to the present day.  Seemingly increasing this effect is the fact that the UK government (technically the Queen) basically runs religion in the country.  As we’ve learned on our tours of various religious sites, there is not only a nationally-run church (The Church of England) but also a nationally-run synagogue (the United Synagogue).  Just to clarify, by “church” and “synagogue,” I mean an organization of churches and an organization of synagogues, not single buildings.  It would make sense, at least to most Americans used to a separation of church and state, that the close ties between religion and government would result in higher amounts of English citizens being religious.  However, that is not the case.  Focusing on the Christian faith, simply because it is the largest in England by a wide margin, and has seen the largest decline in believers (though not members, a phenomenon that I’ll get into soon), the Christian sites that we visited were generally much more “touristy” than they were religious.  Westminster Abbey is basically just a museum at this point, used by tourists to see the burial places of famous people like Mary Queen of Scots, Clement Attlee, Neville Chamberlain, Charles Darwin, and Geoffrey Chaucer (and the list goes on), rather than being used as a church (which is what it was built for).  Of course, it’s also used for coronations, remembrance ceremonies (like the one for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain ceremony yesterday), etc., which are really religious ceremonies.  Interestingly, at the Abbey, a prayer is read over an intercom every hour, which might be meant to try to hold on to a bit of the religious feeling of the place that it has lost over the years.

Personal Photo of Westminster Abbey

St. Paul’s Cathedral is much the same as the Abbey in many ways.  It too serves more as a tourist destination than a religious destination.  I completely understand this, as it’s a beautiful building (in my opinion), and it’s even more fantastic when you climb to the top of the dome and see the whole city below you.

Personal Photo from top of St. Paul's

It too has a problem with being religious, which it tries to remedy by having token religious ceremonies.  I went to Evensong there one night rather early on in our program, and it was fantastic.  You just can’t beat seeing a church service (almost entirely sung) in a building so beautiful, both aesthetically and acoustically.  However, it feels that this service (which I believe happens every night) is done just so the people running it feel like they’re still running a church, and not a museum.

The third church that I’d like to discuss is St. Martin-in-the-Fields, located near Trafalgar Square.  This church is a bit different from the rest, because they actually have regular church services (in English and Chinese, interestingly enough).  However, they also host a lot of concerts, including regular jazz nights.  For example, when we went, there was a woodwind trio playing classical music, which was fabulous.  I find it interesting, tying this into my theme, that even a church that has a thriving congregation still feels the need to provide secular events to the general public.

So what does this all mean?  Why are all of London’s churches trying to appeal to secular people?  The answer is simple: the Church is dying.  Over the past few decades, England has become radically more secular, and only a small percentage (compared to most of the rest of the world) go to church regularly.  This doesn’t stop over 77% of the English from saying that they’re Christian (according to the CIA World Factbook, because I don’t have Watching the English with me at the British Library, and really needed that stat), of course.  The interesting part about government-controlled religion is that it is exactly that, as opposed religion-controlled government.  Americans typically believe that the separation of church and state prevents crazy religious fanatics from taking over the government (which it obviously doesn’t, seeing as how the entire US government is run by crazy religious fanatics, which is only a slight exaggeration), when instead it just prevents government from controlling religion.  In the UK, the government has somehow squeezed the life out of religion, so that it is possible to be an Anglican and completely non-religious at the same time.  Because religion has lost its meaning to many of the English, churches have started to become tourist destinations or something approximating community centers, just to stay alive.  I haven’t really decided whether or not this is a good thing, but I certainly enjoy being able to visit these places without feeling like I have to pretend to be religious while I’m there.

Tags: 2010 MatthewM · Churches and Cathedrals

A Response to George Orwell

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

After reading the title of this post, anyone not familiar with our class wiki may be expecting an intellectual argument for or against the book 1984, or any of Orwell’s other great works.  Instead, I’m going to talk about alcohol, specifically the drinking of it.  Actually, I lied, kind of.  I’m in fact preparing to discuss an essay that Orwell wrote called The Moon Under Water (for those who haven’t read it, here’s the link: http://www.netcharles.com/orwell/essays/moon-under-water.htm), which discusses the characteristics of the perfect pub in Orwell’s eyes.  So, this post won’t be so much about drinking as it will be about the venues for drinking (which should make a lot of people happy, especially my parents).

In case you’re too lazy to read Orwell’s very brief, but very interesting essay, I’ll summarize it for you.  Basically, Orwell describes a pub, which we later find out is fictional, that has ten qualities that make it perfect.  These are:

1. The architecture is Victorian.

2. Darts are only played in the public part of the bar, which allows people to drink without having to duck.

3. The pub is quiet enough to talk, with no radio or piano.

4. Barmaids that know their customers by name and take an interest in them.

5. The bar sells tobacco and cigarettes, in addition to booze.

6. There is a snack counter that serves “liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels, cheese, pickles and […] large biscuits with caraway seeds.”

7. Six days a week, they serve lunch — for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll.

8. “[…] a creamy sort of draught stout […].”

9. Extreme care is taken with their drinking vessels and they never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass.

10. A large garden.

Looking at this essay 64 years after it was written, some of these things look like no-brainers that are characteristic of every modern pub (like a dart board being out of the way, or the pub having a nice stout) and some seem just silly, like beer not being served in a handleless glass or a pub having a garden.  Despite these, if I were to characterize my ideal pub (which I’m going to) I would have to say that it would have all of these characteristics, except for numbers 5 and 9, and maybe number 1.  Being completely unable to imagine a Victorian pub (mostly because when I think of “Victorian” buildings, I can only think of my aunt and uncle’s stuffy, uncomfortable Victorian-decorated houses), I don’t really know if that kind of decor is important to me or not.  However, I’m going to assume that a Victorian pub looks like a stereotypical English pub, which, if true, would mean that Victorian architecture is definitely an important trait of a great pub.  A pub just wouldn’t be a pub without being really dark at all times of the day, with dark wooden walls, a couple of old looking paintings, etc.

Unfortunately, I haven’t really found a pub that matches all of the criteria.  Most pubs are so loud at any time of the day that it’s impossible to hold a proper conversation without yelling, and I’ve never seen a pub with a garden.  However, I have found one pub that gets pretty darn close to my ideal.  Sadly, I only discovered it today, so I won’t have much time to go back.  It probably has the best name for a pub, at least in the opinion of the part of me that loves Shakespeare, because it is called The Globe, despite being nowhere near the famous theatre, being instead located very near the Covent Garden Market.  Forgetting the garden requirement because no pub nowadays has a garden and number 4 because I’ve only been there once (though the staff seem nice), The Globe meets all of my criteria, if I understand what a Victorian pub looks like.  I don’t even think they own a dartboard, which means they pass number 2 by default, and the pub was almost silent when we were there, which is a rarity that is much appreciated when it is seen.  They seem to have a very nice menu, though the four of us (the members of the Origins of Rock and Roll in London tour group, a.k.a The Fab Four) only got an order of chips, food-wise.  They have Guinness (a stout), which is really the only beer I ever need, and they seem to take care of their drinking glasses rather well.  Therefore, I guess if I needed to pick a “favourite” pub, it would be The Globe.

Now to take a different tact on the same basic theme, I guess I’ll briefly discuss the hidden rules of pubs, which are only truly hidden for any of us who haven’t read Kate Fox (which I hope is not many, if there are any at all, because it is a wonderful, though sometimes inaccurate book).  Today was actually my first experience buying drinks in rounds (technically round), so I can’t really talk much about this ritual from experience, but it seems to happen, as Fox said it does.  The basic principle for those who don’t know is that when a group is out drinking, people will take turns going up to the bar to buy drinks for the group instead of ordering individually.  There are, of course, many variations, but that’s the basic idea.  Another important rule is that of buying the bartender a drink rather than tipping him or her.  Because I never drink a lot when I go out, I’ve never really done this, because it makes much more sense if he or she has given you a few drinks, rather than just one.  In fact, the only time that I was part of a group that tried to buy a bartender a drink, she refused it (it was lunchtime and she wasn’t English, which probably makes a difference).  Therefore, I really can’t speak to the validity of this particular rule.  Those are really the only two rules that I remember observing (or not observing) in my limited pub experiences.  If anyone with more experience can think of anymore, please let me know!

Tags: 2010 MatthewM · Pubs

The Habit of (Bad) Art

September 18th, 2010 · No Comments

It’s not often that I dislike a play.  I can often look past mediocre writing or questionable acting to see the good side of a show.  As someone who worked in community theatre throughout high school, I know how much work goes into a show, so when I go to see a show, I try to appreciate how hard everyone involved worked to put it on.  Last night, however, at The Habit of Art I found it hard to appreciate much of anything.  I could very easily nitpick about how the entire show was lit almost entirely with florescent lights (which look horrible) or something like that, because technical theatre is my thing, but I’ll stick with bigger themes instead.  First of all, the entire premise of the show is the rehearsal of a show, creating a show within a show, which is an effect that can be done tastefully, but isn’t in Habit.  It begins with the actors showing up for rehearsal for a (poorly-written) show that most of them hate, which leads to a lot of interruptions of the rehearsal, including a lot of conflict with the “writer” of said poorly-written show about interpretations and such.  This really prevented me from getting into either part of the show, because the “outside” play wasn’t present enough to really make a difference, but it was there just enough to be really annoying.  Meanwhile, the play within the play (the “inside” play) actually got to be good at bits, but these bits were always interrupted by the “writer,” the “stage manager,” and the “lead actor” yelling at each other.  Adding to this was that the whole premise of the “inside” play was very strange.  To sum it up in a few sentences, W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten (a famous poet and a famous pianist/composer, respectively) are both in Oxford towards the end of their lives, having been good friends since they were young men (which is a fine plot of a play, and would be one I could enjoy).  At the time the action is happening, however, they’re grumpy, old, sex-craved, homosexual pedophiles.  Auden regularly pees in his sink, while Britten plays music with young boys to replace another kind of playing that he’d rather do with them.  Auden hires “rent-boys” to give him blowjobs, which it seems was a normal thing for Oxford professors to do at the time, because the rent-boy in the inside play talks of several of his more intellectual “clients.”  I’ll stop there, because I’m sure you get the idea.  I seem to remember there being more of a plot to the play, but it was overshadowed so much by it making two of England’s greatest intellectuals look really, really bad, that I simply can’t remember anything else.  Previously, I have had some experience with the music of Britten, which is beautiful, but have had no experience with Auden.  While my opinion of Britten really didn’t change much with this play (mostly because it was clear Britten in the play was trying to restrain himself), I’m not sure that I could ever take Auden seriously now, if I ever got up the nerve to read his poems, which is a shame because he’s one of the best poets the world has ever known.  Even though the play is supposedly based on true stories, I feel that the characters were exaggerated under the false idea that this would make them more suitable for the theatre.

I guess I should talk a bit about the venue, because it is one of the reasons such a questionable show was allowed to be put on.  Habit is being performed at the National Theatre which, as its name suggests, is publicly funded.  Because it doesn’t need to worry about its bottom line, it’s free to host more experimental theatre, which I’m totally all for.  If not for places like this, where else could new theatre be tried out?  However, the downside to this is that every once in a while, a weird show slips through.  It comes with the territory.  And as I look at it, you have to see a bad show sometimes to make you truly understand what a good show is.

For the sake of comparison, let’s examine the other two straight plays (in the non-musical sense, not heterosexual sense) we’ve seen and compare and contrast their quality and their venues.  Merry Wives of Windsor was a very high-quality play and by far the best performance of Shakespeare that I’ve ever seen.  It was put on at the Globe, which is a privately-funded, for-profit theatre.  Because of this (and the history of the Globe with Shakespeare, which is definitely the biggest factor) the Globe can’t put on that many “new” plays.  The notable exception is Bedlam, the first play written by a woman to be performed at the Globe, the world premiere of which I saw a few weeks ago.  It wasn’t a great show, but it’s hard to write a show for the Globe in this day in age.  It was quite enjoyable, though it was not nearly the best I’ve seen.  Even so, it was clear that it was good enough to make money, which is really all that matters to the theatre in the long run.

The other play we’ve seen is The 39 Steps, a farce of the old Hitchcock film by the same name.  It was very good, in my opinion, which isn’t surprising because it is performed at the Criterion Theatre.  A West End theatre, and therefore a for-profit theatre, it only shows shows that can make money.  The one downside to a theatre like the Criterion, however, is that they only show one show at a time, as opposed to the National, which can be showing 8 in its three theatres at the same time, or the Globe which can have many shows in its repertoire at the same time because of its sparse sets and flexible space.

Looking back, I’ve noticed something interesting about the plays we have seen as a class (and I’m sure that this was intentional), because they were each held in a different kind of venue.  Merry Wives was held in the iconic Globe, with its standing room on the ground (The Groundling seats), raised galleries, and wooden stage, while 39 Steps is in a traditional, for-profit, proscenium arch theatre, and Habit of Art is in a huge, publicly-funded theatre complex.  I feel that, despite my disappointment with Habit of Art, we’ve had a very well-rounded theatre experience whilst in London, one I hope to supplement with a few more shows before we leave.

Tags: 2010 MatthewM · Theatre

“You Don’t Have to Say Sorry”

September 15th, 2010 · No Comments

Last night, I had an experience that went completely against my understanding of one of the core pillars of Englishness as described by Kate Fox in Watching the English, namely the use of the word “Sorry.”  It all began when Stephenie and I decided to go the The One Tun to watch the Man U v. Rangers game, which they ended up not showing, favoring Tottenham v. Bremen.  We grabbed some fish and chips, and watched the game, while also playing pub trivia, which seems to be a weekly tradition there.  As we got up to leave, as often happens in any crowded place, a man bumped into me, and I automatically responded with a polite “Sorry,” just like Fox told me the English do.  This particular man was followed by a female, who I can only assume was the man’s girlfriend/wife.  This female character was the one that completely dismantled my understanding of English social interactions, because she said to me, and I quote, “We ran into you, you don’t need to say sorry.”  She was very polite about it (as is expected from an Englishperson), but it still was quite disconcerting.  What do you mean I don’t have to say “Sorry?”  This is England, for crying out loud!  “Sorry” is practically the national word!

After pondering this series of events over the last 24 hours or so, I have come up with several explanations for it.  The first of these is the fact that the woman seemed to be rather intoxicated, so maybe the depressive effects of the alcohol relaxed her normal English awkwardness so that she felt that “Sorry” wasn’t required.  However, I think it more likely had to do with the natural liminal properties of pubs.  Because the supposed English “social dis-ease” (which I haven’t experienced all that much in London), isn’t so severe in a pub setting, it might make sense that “Sorry” simply doesn’t apply as much, because the English are much less awkward around each other.  Even if this is true however, I am still terribly confused, and may not feel comfortable saying “Sorry” ever again.

Tags: 2010 MatthewM · Pubs · Uncategorized

The British Museum: A Fascinating Ethnographic Experiment

September 11th, 2010 · 2 Comments

While visiting the British Museum several nights ago, I noticed an interesting behavior exhibited by different ethnic groups, depending on the culture focused on in a given room.  The exhibits that I was looking at that particular evening (Ancient Greeks and Ancient Asians) were rather diverse, and it was precisely this diversity that alerted me to this phenomenon.  While wandering through room after room of Greek artifacts, I noticed that Asian visitors (with only very few exceptions) would pass through these rooms without stopping to actually look at many, if any, of the artifacts.  I slowed my pace considerably through the remainder of the exhibit, to observe the most number of people, and sure enough, Asian visitor after Asian visitor passed through the rooms, only occasionally stopping to look at one artifact, or more likely, take a picture, before moving on.  Compared to visitors who looked to be of European/American ancestry, the difference is stark.  These people generally took their time through the exhibits, stopping to gawk at an exceptional pot or other artifact, and generally going at a more suitable pace for such a wonderful museum (in my opinion).

Intrigued by this, I moved on to the Asian exhibits to see if I could find a similar trend there.  Sure enough, I did, but it was almost completely reversed.  In this case, the Asian visitors were the ones that were slowing down to look at everything, while the people that were zipping through were almost entirely Caucasian.  This is exactly what I expected to find, as my hypothesis prior to entering the Asian room was that people, whether consciously or subconsciously, care more about cultures closest to their own, and are therefore more interested in the history of these cultures.  This is why those of Euro-American heritage took their time through the Greek exhibits, but zoomed through the Asian room, while the Asians exhibited the opposite behaviour.

All this may either be evidence for or against the British Museum.  This small, unscientific experiment of sorts seems to show that people don’t care about other cultures, at least not as much as their own.  It’s very easy to extrapolate this to all sorts of things (for example, various imperialist wars in the Middle East, religious intolerance all over the world, etc.), but I don’t want to make this post too upsetting, so I won’t dwell on sad things, and get back to the Museum.  I’d rather think that this phenomenon shows that the Museum has something for everyone.  No matter where you’re from, you’ll find a piece of our history at the British Museum.  I’d like to think there’s a bit of hope left in the world, so I thoroughly believe that this latter theory more true than its predecessor.

Interestingly, to finish things off, I travelled to the Americas section of the museum to see what kind of demographics it attracted, to compare to my observations in the Greek and Asian sections.  I found that no one, no matter who they were or what they looked like, just buzzed through.  Everyone was transfixed by the Native American headdresses and canoes, but I found no Americans in the exhibit (It’s surprising how easy we are to pick out, once you live in another culture for a while).  This seemed exactly contrary to my other findings, as going off of my findings, you would expect to see a whole gaggle of Americans in the part of the museum dedicated to their history.  On closer inspection however, this makes perfect sense.  The vast majority of Americans are not of any measurable Native American descent.  Instead, we’re predominantly from Europe and Asia, which incidentally are the exhibits in which I found all the “missing” American visitors.  This “exception” seems to in fact further prove the rule, as Americans, as part of a “melting pot,” still associate closely with the history of their international forefathers.

Tags: 2010 MatthewM · Museums

The Sir John Soane Museum

September 8th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Today, I visited The Sir John Soane Museum, which I must say is not your typical museum.  It is located in the building that its architect namesake built especially to house his collection of priceless artifacts in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  Like many museums of the time, the owner’s philosophy for museum organization was basically to just cover the entire building in artifacts.  The current museum staff has put a lot of effort into maintaining this philosophy, for better or for worse.  Unfortunately, no picture can do the museum justice (which sounds better than just saying that the museum doesn’t allow pictures, which is an assumption that I made, not a fact), so you’ll have to go to the museum yourself to realize exactly how overwhelming it is.  Every surface is covered in pieces from everywhere from Ancient Egypt and Greece through the Middle Ages.  While this method of displaying art has historical value and is a good way of showing a lot in a small space, I’m not sure I’m a fan of it.  Not only is it overwhelming, but it doesn’t do the art justice.  All over the place are pieces that would normally be by themselves in a case, like the sarcophagus of Seti I, one of Egypt’s early princes.  Instead, they’re all jumbled together, which makes it hard to appreciate them.  Also, the way in which some pieces were displayed, especially ancient clay pots placed around the mezzanine between the ground floor and the basement, was clearly very unsafe, if preservation of the art is the goal, which it should be.  It would be far too easy to destroy a priceless piece of pottery just by accidentally bumping it on your way past.  A painting displayed in direct sunlight also comes to mind as a piece displayed in a unsustainable way.  It’s interesting to compare the Soane Museum to other museums that we have visited in London, because most museums take very good care of their art, locking it in temperature-controlled glass cases.  One of the few things I like about the Soane’s method is that it’s very easy to relate to the art because you can actually feel it if you want to (since there were no signs saying “Do Not Touch”, though that does not mean that I touched anything, because I understand basic preservation techniques) and it’s right in front of you.  Either way, I believe the museum was a very good learning experience, and would recommend it to anyone visiting London.

Tags: 2010 MatthewM · Museums