Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Entries Tagged as '2010 Stephenie'

Norwich Cathedral: Special Days

May 7th, 2011 · No Comments

Every so often, the cathedral has special events that are outside of the usual school visits that target families. I’ve done two of these events: Dragon Festival at the Cathedral and Easter Family Days. While these days are fun, they’re not nearly as enjoyable as the school visit days because there’s less interaction with the kids and more with the adults, who usually are curious as to how an American ended up working at the cathedral.

The Dragon Festival day was exhausting (10 to 4:30) and busy. Something like 300 families came through the doors and participated in the dragon hunt that was set up in the cathedral and required them to look closely to find all of the dragons and/or the puppet making that took over the classroom and required (at the busiest times) waiting in a queue for more than an hour. Mostly, I walked around the cathedral and helped families spot the dragons that weren’t that obvious for whatever reason. In a medieval costume. Peter was dressed up as St George and was also walking around helping locate and slay dragons (when he wasn’t napping in the choir stalls, which was adorable) and we’d occasionally team up to show the kids a dragon or explain that one of the so-called dragons in the choir stalls was actually a Wyvern, a mythological cousin of the dragon. My favourite moment was when a young boy, no more than 4 or 5 was frightened a dragon in the stained glass and started crying. His mom and I tried to calm him down and explain there was no need to be afraid. It brought to mind when St Anselm, about 900 years ago, commented on how children are sometimes frightened by dragons in cathedrals. (Yes, I realise I’m a bit of a medieval geek when medieval philosophers come up in a blog, or in real life outside of the classroom…)

The Easter Family Days were a bit different, and quieter. Unlike the Dragon Festival, those attracted to the cathedral over these two days tended to be Christian families whose kids were familiar with the Easter story. While there, they would go around to different stations which were set up to tell the Easter story, do various arts and crafts (mostly colouring and assembling a basket), and then finish up with an egg hunt in the Herb Garden. Nonetheless, there were a few of the younger kids who weren’t sure what to make of the Resurrection. When asked how they would feel if they went to a tomb or grave and it was empty, but their were angels outside of it, one kid replied that he would be afraid of “Zombie Jesus.” Some didn’t even believe in angels, which I thought was interesting; usually, the parents worked to counteract this belief when I tried to talk to the kids about angels and miracles. The second day, I was stationed at the arts & crafts table, along with the other Dickinson volunteers, and the area was jokingly referred to as “The American Section.” Arts & Crafts was the best because it provided a legitimate excuse to spend the day colouring between helping families assemble their baskets before the kids went into the Herb Garden for the egg hunt.While I enjoyed these days immensely, I missed getting to talk about the medieval bits of the cathedral; it was more for the here and now bits of the cathedral, which is great, but I missed talking about the architecture and art and how it functioned. For example, there’s an area in the presbytery where a monk would have been hidden- a sort of Christ in His tomb- and then three days later, he would have “risen.” The medieval pageantry surrounding Easter is incredible and that would have been interesting to see. However, realistically, it’s practically impossible to get families to stay at the cathedral any longer than the hour or so that they were already there without giving them a lot more hands-on activities that kept both parent and child happy. Furthermore, as Juliet has pointed out several times, it’s also a matter of getting passionate and willing volunteers to commit lots of time to the cathedral to help these events go off.

Then, there was the day I was helping out at the Forum for a Religious Education day. Since religious education is required, there are several local groups that try to promote it and promote the different things that schools can do. Since the cathedral is one of the obvious, Juliet is heavily involved in one of these local groups and asked if I could come along and help. I wasn’t sure what I would be doing, but I said sure and pretty much spent the day making sure people knew where to go and answering sometimes weird inquiries about religious education, as well as getting yelled at because it has been threatened in school (by cuts) or because people think its unnecessary. (Personally, I think it’s great because you have to know those around you and their beliefs in order to foster understanding environments.) It was by far one of the most interesting days of my life, especially when a guy told Juliet that “all you religious” are ridiculous and admitted to never being happy about life in general and then gave the single most chipper “Cheerio” I have EVER heard…

The best part of the special days was seeing how a cathedral can stay important in the daily life of a community; it can be an important testament of the past (which I admittedly tend to go to them for when I’m not at one for a service) and a place to bring families together. It’s easy to forget, especially for me, that not everyone gets why it’s important that these amazing structures are respected and used regularly, not to mention studied.

Supervisor: Juliet Corbett


22/2: 10-4:30 (6.5)

24/3: 10-4 (6)

12/4: 10-2:30 (4.5)

13/4: 10-3 (5)

Total: 22

Grand Total: 45

Tags: 2010 Stephenie

Norwich Cathedral: School Visits

May 7th, 2011 · No Comments

At the Cathedral, I’m a School Teams Volunteer; usually, this means I get to help out with school visits, but sometimes it means I help out with special programmes (I’ll talk about these later). Normally, I go in around half 9 and finish about 2 or 3, depending on the school’s chosen programme. I’m almost always greeted by my boss Juliet with a big smile and a question about how things are going. I’ve done everything from helping kids make clay animals to colouring animals to banging on empty milk cartons with knitting needles. Oh, and I’ve talked way too in-depth about the art and architecture to both kids and chaperones who find it interesting, or so I’d like to think…

My favourite programme is by far the Noah Days. Half of the students go around the cathedral with one of the guides who tells them about monastic life and points out the Noah roof boss while the other half is told the Noah story by Maggie, another one of the volunteers. Then, depending on the age group, they either make clay animals/arks or draw animals to put on a giant mural that they can then take back to their schools. The murals almost always end up with more than two of each animal and sometimes they end up with more than one Noah, depending on the creativity of the kids. And, finally, they have a drama session which usually consists of acting out the Noah story in some fashion, ie they pretend to be animals & Noah’s family, and have Junk Percussion. Junk Percussion is great, unless you’ve been up until 2 or 3am writing an essay and are really tired. Basically, we’ve got a bunch of empty milk cartons, water bottles, tins with beans & metal bits, and knitting needles (drumsticks) that the kids get to pick out and use as percussion instruments. The teachers, Juliet, & I usually read the parts and the students provide the background noises- everything from animal noises to the rain to a la-la singing effect when the rainbow appears. It’s always funny when the teachers start cringing because they would NEVER let the students act that out of hand; and by out of hand, I mean being loud and having fun. The best part of these days are hearing the kids talk about how they would feel if they were stuck inside an ark for 40 days and seeing them having way too much fun on the junk percussion.

Student Sheep

The second programme we do is the Good Shepherd Day, which is all about well, the Good Shepherd and feeling cared for. Maggie usually does the story (we have a couple of wooden sets of animals and such that are used for these story-telling sessions) while another group is shown around the cathedral, with the Good Shepherd window highlighted on their tour. After the story, they talk about where there “sanctuary” is and who cares for them. We always try to bring them around to the point that they are cared for and such. They then make sheep (from clay, which I usually have the wonderful task of dividing rolling into little balls before the students get there) and position them in the little area that is set up for them- complete with sheep pen and wooden shepherd. We then talk about who made what sheep and why they chose to put them either in or outside of the pen, which is sometimes illuminating; most of the time the kids were really proud of their sheep and wanted it to stand out. Occasionally, there would be one student who wasn’t sure how to make a sheep and then I’d have to help them. There was one (particularly silly) girl who wanted me to make it for her so she could ask me sort of personal questions about my friends, if I’m seeing anyone, why I have a funny accent, etc.

The third programme I’ve helped out with is probably my favourite: Monks’ Day. The kids get dressed up in black habits, which are supposed to be reflective of the Benedictine habits the monks wore, but looks more like Death Eater costumes. (Seriously, I could barely keep a straight face the first day I did this programme because I was surrounded by little Death Eaters). Terry (who was once a monk) and Peter then take the kids around the cathedral, highlighting the daily duties of the novice in particular. Then, the kids have plainsong in the choir stalls (usually a funny experience that results in one kid getting called out to lead the rest of the group, much to their embarrassment) before going back to the classroom to do some form of activity before they go upstairs and “interview” Brother Terry and Agnes (usually played by Juliet), the cathedral servant, about life at the cathedral in the 1390s. At the end of the day, the kids get to vote on whether they’d like to be a monk/nun. It’s normally a mix between yes and no; usually, they say yes if they were in the 14th century because the lifestyle was better for the average monk than for the average peasant and no for if they were in the 21st century because they’d want their technology. These are usually my favourite days because they get the kids out into the cathedral the most and take them back to the monastery days.

Finally, there’s the Christian Encounters Day where the students are given a tour of the cathedral, which highlights the bits based on their importance to Christianity. This is usually a short visit, whereas the other days are all day, and introduces the kids to a cathedral and Christianity, which some are unfamiliar with. The last group I had was really knowledgeable about the cathedral and would have spent hours asking questions about different bits, especially the roof bosses, which was fine with me because I love seeing kids engage with the art and try to figure out the stories, but their teachers were a bit too concerned with time and getting through everything.

Working with the schools and getting to share what I know about medieval art has been my favourite bit of volunteering at the cathedral. There’s something awesome about showing a kid a misericord with a dragon and seeing their imagination take off that makes rolling balls of clay and putting up with the craziness that often comes along with Junk Percussion worth it. If I’m going to have any withdrawals from this year (and I’m guessing there will be several), the hardest to cope with will be not working with young kids in the cathedral and inspiring them to not only get interested in history, but art as well.

14/2: 9:30-2:30 (5)

7/4: 9:30-2:30 (5)

14/4: 9:30-2:30 (5)

28/4: 9:30-3 (5.5)

6/5: 9:30-12 (2.5)

Hours: 23

Supervisor: Juliet Corbett

Tags: 2010 Stephenie

My Theatrical Experience, Part Two

September 21st, 2010 · No Comments

Since being in London, I’ve seen a total of 11 shows/concerts (Proms, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Bedlam, The 39 Steps, The Habit of Art, Billy Elliot, Wicked, Deathtrap, Les Mis, Les Mis’ 25th Anniversary Production, and Passion). I’ve enjoyed everyone of them and there are a couple I’d love to see again.

After Deathtrap

In my last theatre blog, I talked about stage door and how I was slightly disappointed about the response from the actors. (Summary: it isn’t as popular as it is in the US, probably because of the whole extreme privacy issue.) Since then, I’ve had a bit more success at the Stage Door, including meeting the majority of the leads of Wicked, Jonathan Groff after Deathtrap, and a couple of the Les Mis 25th Anniversary cast, including Marius and Valjean. I’ve decided that the privacy issue is most definitely part of it and there are two types of actors: the one who signs and mumbles a “thanks” and the one who talks to you about the performance. (While this is true in the US as well, 99% of those I’ve met fall into the later category, where it is the opposite here.) At Wicked, two actresses (the witches) commented that there were actually fewer people at the door than usual, which leads me to believe that is more than just a privacy issue. I noticed a major difference in the type of the show where people did stage door and where the actors were involved in it rather than walking away at a brisk pace: the  stereotypical West End show (Wicked, Les Mis) where the actors expect it because of a huge fan base and the more intimate, less glitzy shows (Deathtrap).

The other thing that has struck me about theatre here is how self-aware the shows are. Most of them have made fun of some part of British culture, including apologizing until it was past ridiculous. In The Habit of Art, the show confronted theatrical issues, which led to several people commenting on how it was likely the most elitist piece we had seen. But Deathtrap did the same thing in a very non-elitist way. Still a play-within-a-play, the play didn’t interrupt the other play (I can’t really say more without giving away the plot) and the commentary on the superiority of writers over their actors was still present without being theatre-specific. Instead of inside jokes, the literary jokes were more common place: Arthur Miller and sales cases vs. the National Theatre’s specific theatres. In most of the shows I’ve seen in the US, I feel that the show didn’t make fun of theatre the way it does here. I think this isn’t because the English are more aware, but are less likely to be openly critical of anything and more likely to deal with it with humor and irony.

I’ve enjoyed my theatre experiences and I hope when I visit London I’ll be able to see other shows. (Or Deathtrap again.)

Tags: 2010 Stephenie · Theatre

St. Bartholomew the Great: The Church We Should’ve Gone To

September 21st, 2010 · 1 Comment

Throughout the entire month in London, people have moaned that the churches/cathedrals we went to were lacking: there was no spiritual awareness, that it was too touristy, etc. While this is true to some extent, I felt that we went as tourists, not inquirers, like we did when we visited the synagogue, mandir, and the mosque. We weren’t going to a local parish where they were as keen to brag about what went on there or where they felt it was strictly necessary to outline more of Christian theology.

Yesterday I ventured over to St. Bartholomew the Great, just a few blocks away from the Museum of London. It’s the oldest active medieval parish church in London, so naturally I had to see it. (Bonus Fact: Parts of Shakespeare in Love were also filmed there.) I wasn’t sure what to expect as I was walking up to it; the church was set off from the main road. The gate you have to go through is where Richard II stood when he met with the leaders of the Peasant’s Revolt. Upon entering the church and paying my meager entrance fee (3 pounds), I was asked where I was from (Apparently the smiling gives it away if the accent doesn’t…) and handed a guide of the can’t miss bits.

As I walked through, I got a since that this was what Westminster Abbey would look like if it hadn’t been messed with and wasn’t always undergoing some form of renovation. I passed the medieval baptism font (where interestingly enough, Hogarth was baptized). There was modern art throughout that the church had commissioned to take the place of older pieces and to go over empty spots on the wall. I was somewhat annoyed by this, but I felt that it added a living dimension to the church: it’s still shaping its image, showing its continued importance.

Sounds a bit like Westminster Abbey with famous bits so far. Well, it was, but considerably less magnificent.

Then, I stumbled upon the video that told the church’s history. Think the history lecture we got at the synagogue but extended to include how the church is still active in the parish. (On my way out I noticed there were pamphlets on what to do if you wanted to get married there, join the church, or have a christening.) The video addressed almost every issue, especially how the church is still relevant today, that people had raised.

Even better, there was a chapel that reserved for people who wanted to pray. It was out of the prying eye of the tourists (all five) who were ambling through the church. (The entry fee was waved if you were there to pray.)

By the end of my visit, I had felt that I had an experience more akin to those at the other places we visited. If I had had a lay guide I am positive that I would’ve felt that I were there as a visitor rather than a tourist.

Tags: 2010 Stephenie · Churches and Cathedrals

Paradise on Earth

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

One of the things that has truly surprised me during our time in London and in our readings over the summer was the lack of a widespread religious sentiment and a growing secular way of thinking. Visiting the different places of worship for me has been very enriching. I sincerely enjoyed hearing about the way different roles of various institutions in their communities. Despite this growing secular sentiment, it was evident to me that faith is still an important key to Englishness. Sure, we may not have had the same treatment at the Christian institutions we visited, but we weren’t at the parish church where they would have stressed the other parts of Christianity outside of the famous dead people.

At the mandir, mosque, and synagogue, I did learn something about other faith communities, all of which I wasn’t that familiar with. Familiar with Christian outreach, it was interesting to hear the way other faiths volunteer and conduct outreach. I was also intrigued by the amount of history each guide mentioned; at the mandir, there was a specific exhibit to help you understand the history and beliefs of Hinduism. At the mosque, the guide spent more time on the basic principles, whereas at the synagogue it was much more history heavy, which I enjoyed (despite the slight mix up with who declared the crusades and who ordered Richard’s). Yet, they all stressed the importance of the community and what they did for the community. At the end of each tour, I felt that I had been where a faith was active and thriving- counteracting the general arguments we had encountered.

Before I talk about my favorite experience, I’m going to go off on a bit of rant/tangent. (Nothing unusual, you’re probably thinking.) While Christianity is undeniably not as much on the forefront as it once was (I sometimes forget I’m not in the Middle Ages where the church was as influential as those in political power and grotesques littered the cathedral for unknown reasons), it is still playing an important role in England. How? Most noticeably, the concerts we’ve attended. Sure, they haven’t been lectures in Christianity, but they have brought people into a church where they were witnessing a faith community. You don’t necessarily have to have a lecture about the religion’s history when you are there in order to spark an interest. Sometimes a few trips for concerts or to be a tourist will spark an interest and prompt someone to ask a question that leads to a serious discussion. Yes, it would have been nice to have left any of the churches/cathedrals with a pamphlet on basic Christianity, but because those audiences (presumably) weren’t there to learn about Christianity, a pamphlet may have been more alienating than encouraging.

Okay, so my favorite experience and what it taught me. Hands down, my favorite has been (no surprises) Westminster Abbey. (This may change as I’m hoping to get over to St. Bartholomew the Great tomorrow; it’s a medieval parish church.) Why when it didn’t actually teach me about Christianity or the abbey that I didn’t know? One, because it inspired my faith through the sweeping architecture and stained glass. For me, those are more impressive and awe-inspiring than St. Paul’s (in its present Wren-wrecked – okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh-state) could ever dare to be. Two, because as a medievalist, I was able to participate in a long-standing tradition: the pilgrimage. Throughout history, people have visited sites throughout the world for many reasons. At Westminster Abbey, everything I love was combined into one place: my faith, grotesques, cosmati, saints, Chaucer, Gothic architecture, etc. I was on a pilgrimage of sorts. True I wasn’t there to pay my respects to Edward per se, but I can’t deny seeing the tomb of such an important figure didn’t give me chills (even though it’s been really messed up and reassembled incorrectly). I didn’t necessarily have to learn anything about Christianity to have an incredible experience. Yet, to say I didn’t learn anything is mistaken. I did, but I learned more about the position of the Church of England. It is clearly in decline, but the abbey is doing what it can given its monumental dual-purpose (protect priceless art and architecture while spreading its Christian message).

Westminster Abbey Cloister

I’m sure some of us would argue that it is up to these major institutions to take the lead in revitalizing Anglicanism, and to some extent Christianity, in England. However, because Westminster Abbey stands for so much more than just Christianity (whether this is a good or bad thing is up for debate), it is important for some of the parish churches to be more vocal on these issues. For Westminster Abbey (and to some extent St. Paul’s) to take a major stand is a conflict of interests, a problem that lays at the heart of its problems rises: should it risk alienating the audience that helps it survive in order to promote its beliefs? It shouldn’t compromise its faith (and I don’t think it does; it does remain closed for services on Sundays as well as hosts small prayers and services throughout the day/week) in order to protect its architecture, nor should it compromise its architecture to protect its faith. They go hand-in-hand in many regards. Without either, you lose part of the abbey. If there was ever a lose-lose, impossible to win situation, double-edged sword, etc, this was it!

I’m hoping as I visit other major medieval cathedrals, a solution to the Christianity vs. tourism problem will become evident, but for now Westminster Abbey will have to be simply (as its Cloister represented for its medieval monks) my paradise on earth.

Tags: 2010 Stephenie · Churches and Cathedrals

The Perfect Pub and Its Lessons

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

As we have all noticed, pubs are an integral part of English life. They also make for a good laugh when walking down the street and you realize a particularly bizarre pub name. My experiences in pubs thus far have been varied and I’ve learned a few things.

#1: You can’t care if people are looking at you funny because you’re loud. A couple of times, I’ve been with a group of people and we have been rather loud, not surprisingly. Of course it attracts attention, especially if has been in the earlier part of the day. For example, after the walking tours were finished, my group went to a pub (The Globe) outside of Covent Garden to have a celebratory drink.  An older couple was sitting near us and I’d notice that they sent us side glances every once in awhile.  (In our defense, we did try to sit in a back corner so that we wouldn’t- hopefully- be too disturbing.) While we were being loud, I have noticed on my other pub visits that loud isn’t always a problem. It’s a space where people can be more relaxed and English reserve is often lessened. So, I was left wondering whether the side-glances were a result of the fact we were loud Americans (typical!), 20-somethings, or a combination of both.

#2: The Irish are more outgoing, supposedly. A couple of weeks ago, I was in a pub when an Irish guy (James) started to talk to us (and constantly complained about how the English are a lot more stand-offish, as well as about how I don’t have a strong accent). At this point, I had this idea of pubs as solely a place for mates to get together to catch up or after work to wind down. Instead of being the ones who attempted to start a conversation, we were engaged, which caught me off guard. Afterwards, I was hoping that maybe some of the other experiences that I had at pubs would be more open. Nope. They reinforced the idea that this was an exception to the rule.

#3: Offering a pint is polite, but so is refusing. When I’ve been in groups and we’ve offered to a drink to the bartender, they’ve either accepted and then not charged us or refused us. In the later example, I think she was so caught off guard that we offered. The last time we were in this particular pub, we had been in a hurry and unable to “play by the pub rules.” This and her surprise at the offer because of the fact most tourists don’t know about this particular bit of pub etiquette is what, I think, played a major role in her refusal. I look forward to seeing what happens in other pubs.

#4: Don’t be in a hurry. Pubs are a place to relax and unwind with friends, not grab a quick bite between activities. They are meant to be places where time slows and happiness increases, not where stress creeps through.

#5: Orwell was right. The perfect pub doesn’t exist. I’ve enjoyed visiting different ones, but I haven’t found my ideal English pub where I want to go back and become a regular, that has my favorite cider, the best chips in the world, little rooms where no one disturbs anyone, interested workers, near a tube/bus stop, and that the worst drunks don’t visit. Yet, I think the perfect pub would lose its charm. One of the great things about the different pubs I’ve encountered so far is that they all have their charm and I would want to return for different reasons. If you take all of the traits that I’ve enjoyed the most and put them into one pub, I think I’d find it boring.

I look forward to continuing the quest for my perfect pub. I’m thinking the name will be something along the lines of the Unicorn of Albion…

Tags: 2010 Stephenie · Pubs

Parks and Recreation

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

The parks in London, as people have already noted, are places of beauty and enjoyment. Yet, they are not all created equal, well, no, used equally. When relaxing in various ones, I noticed that some were more touristy. In fact, within some, one area was more likely to be touristy that an other.

My first introduction to a London park was when we had class in Russell Square. Clearly, people weren’t used to seeing a group of students (much less Americans) in August discussing various ideas about immigration. Yet, I can’t imagine being at UCL and not using the space for at least small study groups, if not classroom discussions when the weather turns nice.

I adore the idea of small squares littered throughout the city ready for use whenever someone wants an escape from the business and chaos of the city. Of those I noticed, the squares I most wanted to go into were locked and only accessible by the area’s residents. I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, it’s great for residents to have a safe place to go with their young children or a quiet place where they don’t have to worry about tourists wandering through talking loudly (oops). On the other, why shouldn’t these spaces be opened up for everyone? It feels like one more thing that add to English hypocrisy: they want to pretend when it’s convenient that class doesn’t count, but it seems to exist in these situations when the restricted squares seem to be in areas where income looks to be higher.

For the actual parks, my favorite has been Kensington Gardens. I loved the duality of the park: one side was quiet and peaceful and the other was busy, well, as busy as a park can be. Residents played with their dogs as tourists wandered through taking photos and trying to find the actual park, Hyde Park. Hyde Park was also rather enjoyable, but was far busier on the day I visited. Granted, searching for the Peter Pan statue also lends the visit to being centered around the busier areas. I enjoyed walking through Kensington and observing people and how they interacted with the space (mostly walking their dogs or playing fetch with them, as well as a few taking their young children out for a walk). In Hyde I felt like I was only there to check it off of my list of “Things To Do in London.”

An Elderly Couple in Kensington Gardens

Regent’s Park, while a lot like Hyde in some regard also demonstrated this dualistic atmosphere. The park seemed to have a few tourists wandering through (especially as you got closer to the Zoo and in the more French style areas), but it also had a lot of Londoners, some out walking and others with their family (or dogs). I much preferred the areas that were mostly charming (and alarmingly uneven) paths, where others were walking with their dogs. The other thing that I liked about Regent’s was how family friendly it was. There was a playground that was obviously popular among families with young children.

I’ve enjoyed the parks that I’ve visited and they’ve helped convince me that London is actually my favorite city in the world because of their place in the life of the average Londoner (or student visiting for the month): they’re key to staying sane here. I thrive on the chaos of the city, but sometimes nothing is better than a quiet stroll through a park or an hour reading in a square. I hope that as I venture to other places in England that I will be able to go to a few other cities’ gardens/squares/parks and see how they differ.

Tags: 2010 Stephenie

A Little Moaning: Traffic, Firewalls, and Football vs. Quiz Night

September 15th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Since I’ve been here, I’ve witnessed several English moans, all ranging from the fact that Community Support Officers aren’t “real” officers to the weather to the sound being muted during a football match. The moaning doesn’t always bother me (unless I’m surrounded by it and find myself the only one who can find a positive), but the unwillingness to do something, or admit that there is something that can be done, does at times.

My first “moan-on” encounter was not traditional in any sense. Standing at a light waiting to cross the street in Piccadilly Circus, an elderly woman walked around us and started mumbling. I assumed it was something about tourists or Americans not willing to cross without a light unlike a true Londoner (in this case, even the most expert street crosser would have been hesitant!). After a few seconds of waiting, the lady decided that we were also annoyed with traffic and decided to engage us (being Matt and myself) in a moan about the Mayor’s Sky Ride that day. She admitted it was great, but the traffic was so backed up! She also had a rather ambiguous statement about the children being out all day on their bikes: who knows if this was a moan about children being inconsiderate bikers, parents not supervising their children, or if the lady just had something against children and bikes. Since then, I’ve noticed that if traffic is crazy or people are (im)patiently waiting to cross the street, no one strikes up a conversation. This hasn’t caught me off guard; in the US we don’t normally start up conversations while waiting at a street light with a strange. But it has made me wonder why this lady decided to engage us in conversation. Did we look lost? (We weren’t!) Was she lonely? Was she an exception to Kate Fox? (A sort of the exception proves the rule?) Or, did she just say to herself, “my powers of identifying Americans say those two are American! I wonder what they’re doing here”?

My next noticeable one was Monday night when everyone was trying to help set-up for the alumni presentation. If there was ever a time to enact the “Keep Calm and Carry On” phrase, this was it. My mac didn’t have the right hook up; the cord that fit my mac didn’t fit the TV; the firewall didn’t allow us to access youtube or facebook (even if I could get it to upload); I couldn’t get wireless because my computer wasn’t Barclay’s approved; the internet at Claridge’s was slow; the new d-son email system didn’t like the attachment; the Barclays IT guys couldn’t download the right plug-in to play a file created on a mac because of the firewall; the only blank writable CD in the building wasn’t actually blank and the information wasn’t erasable.  (I think that’s all of the problems.) Henrietta, the event planner, was amazing, very helpful, and continuously did a combination of the traditional English moan and apology. “I told the them we were working from a Mac. (Shakes head) ” “I’m so sorry about your presentation. I bet it’s ruined now!” “I’m sorry. I hope we haven’t messed up your presentation.” Even in the moment, I wanted to laugh because here was a perfect example of some of the ideas Fox explores. After a few feeble attempts to return the moans about the IT guys and the firewalls, as well as a few (seemingly unsuccessful) attempts to ensure her that our presentation was indeed going to be fine as I was quite sure we would think of something, I gave up in the co-moaning and just started suggesting plans to fix the problem. I’d much rather spend time debating ideas than dwelling on the fact our original, or billionth, plan didn’t work. Despite the moaning, Henrietta was still quite proactive in trying to resolve the problem and acted, it seemed to be, in the opposite way of the passive, go around that some of us have experienced elsewhere. The main IT guy, however, seemed less proactive, but that could have been because I was mainly a few doors down with Henrietta trying to upload and email the presentation. I was left wondering if working for an American for so long had influenced her aggressiveness.  (I’m not even sure if I would have the guts to go to one of the smartest places in London and “ask” to borrow their internet because we were in a tight spot.)  At the end of the night, despite the moans and technical glitches, the presentation came off okay. Apparently keeping calm and carrying on does work (if enough apologies are spread around).

My most recent and most amusing encounter with English moaning was last night when I went to the One Tun to watch a football match. Because it was Tuesday and Tuesday is the pub’s traditional quiz night, the sound on the TVs was turned off so that contestants could hear the quiz master (not that hearing him made the questions easier. I sort of think we would have done just as well without the actual questions…), which meant no football commentary. No one made a seen, but there was a complaint here and there. The best of which was a quiz team’s name: Turn On the Sound. It was a great passive-aggressive moan that got a few laughs every time the team score was announced. The sound was turned on- after trivia ended. Yet, by then, the game was over. (An annoying 2-2 draw between Tottenham and Bremen.)

I’ve enjoyed hearing the odd moan and I’ve really enjoyed seeing what people do to address the issue, especially when they get creatively passive. While every one is relatively good at keeping calm, the carrying on could use some work.

Tags: 2010 Stephenie

Museums, Repatriation, and Imperialism

September 11th, 2010 · 2 Comments

London’s diverse museums all have an element of British imperialism. The three which best show this are the Wallace Collection, the Sir John Soane Museum, and the British Museum. Yet, each takes a different approach to them: the British Museum is the standard artefact with didactic label, the Soane shows the spoils of an imperialistic age in the wonderful cabinet of curiosities method, and the Wallace Collection arranges its collection as a wonderful combination of the two.

The Rosetta Stone, which has been a centerpiece of the Egyptian repatriation demands.

We’ll start with the British Museum. Perhaps the most controversial collection because of the Elgin Marbles, most of the collection could probably be at the center of a repatriation argument if a government decided to challenge the museum. Instead of noticing that the museum was a shrine to British imperialism, my first thoughts (once I pulled myself away from the medieval galleries) were about the museum’s role in the ongoing battle over countries reclaiming their artefacts. My general beliefs on repatriation are simple: the works belong wherever they are going to get the best care, which, unfortunately for the vast majority of the ancient objects, is not in their countries of origin. For example, there is no way that Egypt can assume responsibility for its antiquities; the ones there are deteriorating alarmingly. While Hawass has done a good deal for Egyptian antiquities, their facilities still are nowhere near those of the British Museum’s facilities. Furthermore, shouldn’t objects that have influenced the whole of history be where the most people have access to them? Surely that is here, in London, not in Cairo?

One of the Elgin Marbles

Unfortunately, that argument is no longer valid for the Elgin Marbles (although, while not as an unpredictable environment as Egypt, Greece does have its problems which could threaten the marbles). Greece has a new acropolis museum that is a perfectly suitable house for the marbles. So, why do I still believe they belong in London? Aside from the whole no-objects-can-leave-England-law and the incredible galleries they are currently housed in, there a couple of reasons. Firstly, their provenance, unlike that of the Italian krater the Met repatriated to Italy, shows them to have been purchased legally versus outrightly stolen. We may not agree with the way they were handled in the 19th century, but because we have a different understanding of the proper way artworks should be sold/purchased does not mean we can go back and make amends with everything. The world’s great museums would be emptied. Secondly, where they are now, they are more accessible. If Greece didn’t have almost as many as the BM, I’m sure everyone would feel differently about the issue. (Well, except for Greece, which would still demand them all, even in the BM only had one.) Because repatriation has become such an important issue, I do believe that even if English law did not forbid it, the marbles would never go back to Greece because once the BM accepts Greece’s arguments, the watershed for repatriation will be open and museums will be scrambling to quadruple check their works’ provenances, possibly wasting valuable resources.

It was only after my second visit to the British Museum that I wondered about some of the works’ provenances. However, from the moment I stepped into the Sir John Soane, all I wanted to do was demand to see some of the provenances of various works, as well as pick up the objects to examine them and the way that they were removed from their original locations. I think part of the reason that it took a second visit to the BM to question it was as one of the leading museums in the world, it has more authority as the stellar, but smaller, Soane. The traditional layout of the BM commands respect, whereas the Soane is easy to mistake for a pile of junk haphazardly arranged. Except, it is the exact opposite: the Soane has incredible pieces. (I could have died of joy looking at the random Gothic bits.) Because of the arrangement- a life size cabinet of curiosities- it is easy to forget that all of the works can point to the achievements of Soane and his time, noticeably imperialism. When walking through, one’s mind is trying to take in everything and is not assisted by didactics, the larger picture is sometimes lost, unlike at the BM, where the layout and didactics remind you almost constantly that while the museum is “British”, the majority of the collection is not. Furthermore, the Soane’s arrangement allows one to feel closer to the objects. Indeed, it is easy to get away with a close examination of the work on the wall and touching them. In the BM, the viewer is often annoyingly separated from the work by class or a rope barrier.

If the BM is arguably the most controversial museum because of its collection, then the Soane is the most overlooked for controversy. Lots of the works were supposedly removed from crumbling sites. Were the sites crumbling before or after the works were removed? Did the dealers have explicit permission? These questions are largely overlooked; in fact, lots of information is overlooked, which adds to the feel of a cabinet of curiosity.

The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection is like the Soane in that it started as one cohesive collection and has grown, as well as that it shows the way the works were staged by their original collector. However, unlike at the Soane, the Wallace Collection does an amazing job of showing lots of works in a way that is not as overwhelming. The collection is mostly housed in period rooms, which add to the atmosphere of the museum, greatly enhancing the works. Instead of wondering about whether the objects should be repatriated, the collection sets up the works in such a way that the viewer is not distracted by theoretical questions on museum practices. (Unless said viewer gets bored of Rococo and armour.) Furthermore, the collection focuses on European art, which focuses it a bit more than the other two museums. If anyone is interested in armour, the Wallace’s collection is superb and world-renowned. Instead of wandering around the museum pointing to works I wanted to examine for causes to repatriate, I wandered the Wallace wondering why certain works were hung together and why anyone would want rooms upon rooms of Rococo art, much less why I was wondering around them when there were three outstanding armouries downstairs that were calling me.

Yet, part of me wonders if Britain didn’t have it’s imperial past, would I be able to see this quality of art and artefacts. If I were able to, would I wonder about the provenance and history of each work as much?

Tags: 2010 Stephenie · Museums

Museums & Meanings

September 11th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Throughout our time here so far, I’ve been to museums that I’ve loved and loathed. Regardless of how I felt about the collections, each museum seemed to say something about England, as well as demonstrate amazing educational programs. (I’ve decided to tackle the issue of museums in two separate blogs. I’m not going to deal with repatriation and provenance, both issues have been on my mind a good deal at a couple of the museums, most noticeably the British Museum and the Sir John Soane museum, in a second blog. This one will be more general and focus a bit on educational programming within the galleries.)

Firstly, thinking back to over two weeks ago, the Greenwich Observatory was an interesting museum. It wasn’t one of my favourites, partly because of the collection, most of which I did not really care for. However, the excellent interactive bits throughout the exhibits were engaging. It did a good job explaining the importance of Greenwich time and it’s relationship to the development of shipping. (I probably know more about longitude now than I ever needed to know.) Unlike the other museums I’ve visited, the achievements it highlighted, were an integral part of the build-up to imperialism vs the spoils of imperialism.

Prime Meridian

The Tate Modern would be my next least favourite. I like some modern art, but it is not normally my first choice to spend an afternoon admiring. (Unless it is a Kandinsky show.) Throughout the Tate, I felt that some of the space had been wasted, especially on the floor where the membership room was located. The main galleries were nice, but offered very little in terms of supplemental didactic materials that could further engage the viewer- all of that was outside of the gallery. While the interactive bits were very interesting, they could easily distract from the art itself. (The seemingly endless reel of video shorts seemed to confirm this.) Yet, I admired the activities for the younger children which engaged them and put the art on their level. By separating the modern art from its other collections, the Tate seems to promote its standing: it is worth more than a gallery add-on in the main building.

The Tate Modern

The Guildhall Art Gallery, by comparison, offered very little interactive displays. By the time I had visited here, I was so use to in-depth descriptions, a wide audience, crowded galleries, and fun didactics, that the seemingly empty gallery caught me off guard. It was nice to see the Roman Amphitheater; the room’s set-up was incredible with recreations of the gladiators. However, the gallery’s art collection was lacking. It mostly seemed to be lesser works of second-tier artists or smaller copies of major artworks created later in an artist’s career. I believe that the gallery was trying to show the positives of British art in the last 200 years, but the gallery failed in this mission because it failed to hold one’s attention for long. Furthermore, the special exhibitions were too text panel heavy. (Balance seems to haunt this gallery.) The panels were informative, but when 3/4 of a panel is devoted to reproducing a picture which is hanging next to the panel, there is a problem. The viewer is drawn to the reproduction, not the actual artwork, defeating the point of the gallery.

The National Gallery is one of my favourites that I have visited, partly because of the Wilton Diptych and partly because there is one spot where my favourite Holbein and a Vermeer are both in one’s line of sight. The collection is outstanding and the works seem to represent the majority of art history. Well, my favourite bits at the very least. While there are not as many interactive activities, the didactics are engaging and there are educational options available. Instead of only seeming to be the spoils of imperialism, the collection has a truly British feel, partly because so many of the works are ones that directly relate to English history rather than the history of far off places. Furthermore, it’s easily accessible and not hidden like the NPG; it’s prominent position on Trafalgar Square also helps with accessibility.

The Wilton Diptych

(For more information: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/english-or-french-the-wilton-diptych)

The Victoria & Albert would be tied for my second favourite museum thus far with the National Gallery and the British Museum (which I’ll discuss in my other museum post). I spent almost 2.5 hours in the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, which were not only gorgeous, but held some incredible pieces. (Can I please just have one grotesque figure?! Just one…) Several people have noted that the sheer amount of stuff in the museum is overwhelming. Outside of the M&R Galleries, I would agree with this. Here, the museum seemed to be addressing this issue, trying to open up the galleries and spread out some of the pieces. Furthermore, the excellent listening stations found throughout the galleries were a perfect mix of in-depth and cursory information, allowing the viewer to pick and choose the information they heard based on their interests. (Highlight: listening to Gregorian chants while viewing the different altarpieces, all of which were stunning.) The V&A proudly displayed artworks which combined to tell the story of the world through art. Unlike the British Museum, it did not claim to be a solely British institution, which I think in some ways helped make the museum a more open place. Furthermore, because it is an artistic school as well, it’s collections are all educational, adding to a different responsibility for its didactics and what is should be collecting. It filled gaps through its amazing replicas gallery, which included some of the most famous works ever created.

Misericord, Victoria & Albert

When taken together, the museums not only provide one of the most stellar examples of museum education in practice, but also serve to tell the triumphs of the British Empire and to highlight the triumphs of the larger artistic international tradition. If London is a city of the world, then its museums reflect this.

Tags: 2010 Stephenie · Museums