London: the Wellcome Collection

I am presently sitting in Peyton and Byrne, the cafe inside the Wellcome. I shall define the Wellcome with its tag-line: “a free destination for the incurably curious.” While there are Wellcome centers in many cities (including Oxford), this is the two-building matrix including the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust. The library contains 750,000 books, and on the first floor are a number of galleries. Through August of this year, the main exhibit is DIRT: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life. There are image galleries and permanent galleries that include the birthing devices, etc. Here is a link to exquisite bodies. My favorite, naturally.

I am here for two reasons. Perhaps three, if you count incurable curiosity. Partly, I wished to get a reader’s card. The Wellcome Collection is a valuable research tool, and there are so many texts, images, and objects to explore. Given my interest in intersections of medicine, literature and anthropology, it is a kind of Mecca. I was shown about by Ross MacFarlane, a research officer and quite brilliant. He is a colleague of James Edmonson, whose name keeps appearing in my work and writing… Dr. Edmonson is the curator of the Dittrick Museum in Cleveland, a truly exceptional museum. The exhibit on birth is one of the best I have seen, and it was there that I had the privilege of beginning this work.

But the final reason for this trip is an upcoming class proposal. It is my hope to bring a group of students to the Wellcome in the future–I know plenty of them who are as incurably curious as I.

[And yes, there is a man standing on the ceiling in the atrium]

London: The British Museum

If you are ever in London, you would do well to visit the hallowed halls of the British Museum. It holds, among other invaluable items, the Rosetta stone and the carvings from the Parthenon. I wandered there today, in endless halls  of anthropological significance. Egyption mummies, the great artwork of Darius I’s Persian empire, the Minoans and Myceneans–Athens! Lycia! Assyria! Japan! There is also quite a bit from Europe 300-1100 AD, and a respectable collection from 800 BC. (Mark, it is practically a crime that you missed this, considering how you love history; we will have to come back). I think I was most awed, strangely enough, by the Roman mosaic tiles…though Greek statuary is utterly breathtaking to behold. There is soul in old objects; they speak. I suppose that explains my penchant for material culture (birthing machine again). The thingness of life.

While having a cranberry-brie baguette in the Grand Court (updated for the new millennium), I met two gentlemen from Switzerland. They noticed that I was sketching the museum lion in my notes, and so struck in. One of them remarked that he did not think experiences (like the ones we get traveling) are translatable. How do we share them? They live inside us. It is a good point. And yet, I feel that we do share them– that same sense of longing and desire for old and new things lives in everyone: the thumbprint of God. We are part of collective human experience, and I think poetry and music proves that the soul can be moved by inarticulate wonder from great distances of space and time (I am thinking of the composer Gibbons again). I am no great composer, of course. I am not a trained photographer, either. But I do believe we can share great gifts, and even great travels, through story, poem and song. And perhaps a blog counts for something, no?

We may even find there is a subtle likeness between us and those who have passed before. Mom, this one’s for you–I am standing next to “Amazon Woman.” I am sure you will appreciate the similarity. [There is a family joke wrapped up in that comment, for those not in the know]. The trouble I have in museums, therefore, is not difficulty connecting to the past or even trouble sharing it. Rather, I get mind-fog–a kind of fatigue from looking at too much amazing work at a time (I think it could be fatal at the Louvre). And so, naturally, I sought out another spot to have tea. In fact, I rather find my way around by frequent stops at tea rooms, coffee shops and pubs. Ants, you know, follow a chemical scent to find their way around (as several varieties are actually blind). I am a tea-shop ant. Go too far along the path without stopping in, and I am utterly lost.

Ant Invitation: Have a look at the snaps, and pour a cup of some friendly brew or other while you do it.

Oxford: Musicology and Eccentricity

But not necessarily in that order.

The Museum of the History of Science is here in Oxford. I had intended to visit the famed Ashmolean, but as someone hunting about for an antiquarian birthing machine, I really couldn’t pass up the special exhibit: Eccentricity…Unexpected objects and strange behaviour

The library also had a running exhibit a few months ago on SteamPunk. That would have been interesting to see, given the brilliant screen play writing Andrea and I have planned for June and July. There was a CD you could purchase of it, but the curator wasn’t sure what was on it (and it was a bit dear), so I left it be. So much of that is accessible on the internet these days (though I really ought to be appalled by that, being a scholar of history and a lover of antiquated books and devices–ah, bundle of contradictions that I am). I would have stayed a bit longer, but my sojourn to the gardens meant I got there near closing time.

Fiddling About

I had intended to spend a quiet evening in with a pizza, but I received word (and a better offer) from a colleague of mine, Dr. William Poole. In case of confusion, this in Wm. Poole the Oxford Tutorial Fellow, not Wm. Poole (aka Bill the Butcher) of New York City gang-land, circa 1850. Dr. Poole works in the period before mine, but overlapping it: 1509-1832. I am more in the 1690-1890 range. We have some overlapping interests as well, and he has a number of quite good books out (my personal favorite is The World Makers about Restoration science. On my to-be-read list).

Poole has some less-well known talents, too; he recently took up the Irish fiddle (that is, a violin with an attitude).

Last night was a night for playing, you see, and I was invited to come along. We met at the King’s Arms for a pint (or two) and then traveled down  to another pub, where we took up residence on the musicians’ bench–and had a cider (or four). Now, if you know me at all, you will recognize that the musicians’ bench is not really the place for me. I can barely play the radio. I can sing, however, and so I produced a few Irish folk songs as an offering to the gods of musicology. I don’t know if the gods were impressed (can sing and should sing not always being equal), but I had a few applause from some after-exam (and slightly less than sober) students. We ended the evening back at the college, listening to Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)–what extraordinary work! I was not familiar with this composer before, but I am a newly professed convert. One needs deeply spiritual music in this field.

On the whole, then, a hugely enjoyable evening, and I hope to hear more of Poole’s fiddling fame when next I visit Oxford.

Promised Picture Link

And, now that my Oxford leg is at an end, I supply the promised gallery of snaps. Onward to London by train (at the uncongenial hour of 7am), and then to Paris. More is coming, worry not.