Friday, 20 July 2007

St. Paul's Cathedral Library

The St. Paul’s Cathedral Library is definitely one of the smaller and more picturesque libraries I’ve ever been in, it looks much more like a personal library than one that has been in much use for a general public and I’m sure in some aspects it will remain a bit of a secret. It seems it would be easy to keep that library a secret anyway, it’s at the top of the Geometric staircase (also, he told us, filmed for one of the Harry Potter films and I recognized that it was used as part of the entrance to Dumbledore’s office) with few signposts and a door that’s located next to what look like unvisited galleries of busts.

Our guide to the library and the spaces it occupies on an upper floor of St. Paul’s was Joe Wisdom, the head librarian, and I’m sure the person who determines who will be let into the library to use the materials, or as he said ‘make good use of the materials.’ It was very hard to tell what the range and scope of the actual collection was, it was re-assembled for St. Paul’s after the Great Fire starting with the donation of Henry Compton, the Bishop of London’s collection.

The books are along all of the walls of the room, on two levels and the woodwork as well as the seemingly mystifying catalogue system reminded me very much of the library at Trinity College in Dublin with its neverending double letters next to shelves with no shelfmarks actually present on the books. The library is also going through some major conservational projects and inventory for the use of conservation. Wisdom reminded us of the large differences between conservation and preservation and restoration and I wondered about the tape the library was using to keep boards on the books. It reminded me of the Art Librarian at the University of Iowa’s campaign against post-it notes and I was thinking perhaps the fabric tape would also leave marks or take off some of the elderly leather keeping the St. Paul’s Library’s volumes together.

One of the main highlights of the tour of the library and essentially the behind-the-scenes of St. Paul’s was one of the rooms intended to be a library reading room wherein lies Sir Christopher Wren’s ‘Great Model’ of what he originally intended for the cathedral. It was rejected for being too Catholic, which seems strange for a cathedral, but this is England after all. The Great Model can apparently be sectioned off to show what Wren’s intentions for the inside of the cathedral were as well, however we saw it intact from the outside only, my first inclination when I saw it was to wonder what it would look like with dolls in it, as it resembles a giant dolls’ cathedral more so to me than an architectural model, so I was well impressed.

The Museum of London

This was a museum I had not heard of on any of my previous visits to London and so I had no idea what exactly its focus was or where it was located; but I ended up quite happy with the subject and scope: the prehistoric area of what has become London all the way up until current times (although those exhibits were unavailable for view) giving a picture into the way people lived and what distresses they had to cope with throughout the city’s evolution.

Our guide was the curator of Prehistory for the museum, John Cotton, and I for one was quite happy to hear about some prehistoric situations, having heard just a bit so far about the Kings and Queens, it was nice to hear about some people without famous names and with nuchal buns. It did seem quite funny to be interested in this though, as Cotton explained to us the issues of promoting the prehistoric collections as most people just want to know about Roman London, Tudor London, or Victorian London, and perhaps not so much about the time before those periods, which does seem familiar, there’s a certain definition of culture that prehistory tends to lack.

For me, it’s mainly about skulls, which thankfully they had several on display amongst the artifacts that have been out into the displays. One that we were shown on slide and then turned up in the museum was a trepanned Neanderthal skull wherein the recipient of the hole through the skull had actually lived through the procedure and the edges of the break showed signs of healing, which was very interesting to see. There were other skulls in the prehistoric area of extinct animals such as predecessors of our current oxen and cattle and a few more human skulls with various kinds of damage, one had very clear incisions on his temple indicating a blow from a blade.

And of course they had the usual bifaces and axe heads and sherds that make up the prehistoric landscape, as well as a burial where the body was used to recreate what one person of the prehistoric London area would have looked like (called the Shepperton woman). Their collection of prehistoric tools and pottery, especially the larger examples of pottery was very impressive, I haven’t ever seen that many axes and bifaces in one museum together. One of the other highlights of the pottery was that the museum was able to get an actual mold of a prehistoric person’s fingertip out of one of the decorational features on a pot, they think it belongs to a woman and she has quite nice, long nails. It did serve to solidify part of my theory on pottery decoration, that the patterns are mostly born out of the same sort of distraction that causes doodling during class. The repetitive nature of the cord patterns on the pots at the Museum of London is very similar to the cord pottery of prehistoric Japan’s Jomon period, reliefs based on rope like coil patterns and hash marks and that really remind me of what I used to do to my notebooks during algebra in high school.

The prehistoric collection also made for a nice background set up for the events of later London that the museum covers in depth, such as when the Romans came later on and the area on the Thames came to be known as ‘Londinium’ and the Great Fire of 1666. There were so many examples of actual pieces of work from the times, such as an early fire fighting helmets and examples of gateways and doors and sculptural pieces of the architecture that made me really feel like in this museum there was not going to be an ‘I don’t know’ portion of the tour and that was well appreciated. Although perhaps I’d prefer more than just that rather hard to watch video about the plague…

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Parliament - the government building covered by art

Visiting the Houses of Parliament is something that I had not done during my previous time spent in England and so entering through the Sovereign’s Entrance and seeing the buildings and their artistry for the first time was quite impressive. For one thing, it gave me an entirely new view of Queen Victoria as a much younger woman who looks a lot more pleased with life in her portrait. Victoria was queen when Parliament, also known as Westminster Palace, was rebuilt and opened in 1845 following a fire.

The building is covered with statues and paintings and small details, I saw a statue of my favorite queen of all time Eleanor of Aquitaine with the rest of her family, including her husband Henry II and son Richard the Lionheart, in the oldest part of the castle remaining, where William Wallace was put on trial and that retains details of what the castle was like when Henry VIII, the last occupant of the castle, lived there. One the things I was most interested by about the way the statues were situated was that they were representing all parts of the families together; one forgets that Queen Elizabeth II has a husband because really it just doesn’t seem like he has much to do (also our guide said he was quite grumpy looking, I assume this is why), but for every queen except Elizabeth I there is a king and children to go with.

I also very much enjoyed the large amount of Tudor Roses detailing the rooms and floors, as this is the combination symbol of the county I lived in, Lancaster (the red rose) and of the neighboring county, York (the white rose). The train stations in Lancaster and York are festooned many times with their respective roses in a nod back to the War of the Roses that put the Tudors on the throne, and while the united rose adorns Westminster Palace there is still a rivalry between the two counties and of course I am always in support of the red (and that is who won, the Tudors were in Lancaster). Just for mention, the roses were brought into the popular consciousness by Shakespeare in Henry VI, which is one of the few of the histories I’ve read (both parts, even), and was very happy I did that when I got to Lancaster and asked about the décor.

Beyond art, Parliament offers a glimpse into the British government, where your vote only counts if you show up, this of course seems like an obviously useful system, but in many countries one does not have to show up to vote, even if they are as important to the system as a Minister of Parliament.

There are of course the two main bodies, the House of Lords where the queen gives a speech once a year and which has been shaken up since Prime Minister Blair, as now one does not need to be a hereditary Lord to be a member, one can also contribute to culture ala Andrew Lloyd Webber and/or be a woman. This shake up can be seen as somewhat nonfunctional, as now the House of Lords has about 760 members. They can’t all show up at once and if they did, there would be nowhere to sit and really, if you’re in the House of Lords I would think you’d expect a seat.

The House of Commons, which is only slightly less picturesque than the House of Lords (go figure), cannot be entered by the Queen, ever, and had the most contemporary statues of Prime Ministers in front of it, including Margaret Thatcher (this just made me think of that Elvis Costello song about tramping down the dirt on her grave, she does not have the best of reputations). The House of Commons has around 660 members who also cannot all sit down simultaneously, unlike the House of Lords, they are elected for five year terms. The members of the House of Commons also get thirty minutes per week to meet with the Prime Minister and apparently they use this time to scare him witless with questions – our guide said that many times he’d seen Tony Blair shaking quite a bit.

The British Library – where no shhing is necessary…

The British Library is very much a place after my own heart in the reference library sense. When I worked in the Art Library at the University of Iowa I didn’t really ever like to see the books leave the room and the British Library never lets anything out.

Their system involves becoming a reader, where after providing comprehensive identification and an interview regarding why you actually need to do research there and touch their books and manuscripts you receive a card and can take a space in any one of the eleven reading rooms and have your list of books and materials delivered to you. There are 1200 seats in the reading rooms, and any book can be delivered to any of them via a conveyor system (which has 33,000 routes), preferably within seventeen minutes.

The overall library has many collections, including about 80,000 stamps, rare materials such as the Magna Carta and the written copy of Beowulf, a document that contains Shakespeare’s signature and copies of his first Folio, and a Guttenberg Bible. The history of printing is well established throughout their collection already and it will continue on that way as they legally must receive a free copy of every single thing printed in the UK.

Since one cannot get lost in the stacks at the library because the British Library brings the books to the researcher, the British Library has one collection visible that makes the building seem a bit more familiar to library users, a five story book tower holding the collection of King George III. He gave his purchased-for-looks collection to the British Library under the conditions that it would be visible at all times and usable. It is encased in the glass tower and only specially trained librarians are allowed to move inside the tower to get the books out if a reader requires them. It seems to me that this would be a very prestigious and possibly sneeze-inducing task, however, our guide made many mentions of temperature controls and so I’m assuming the book tower is under special conditions as well and perhaps would be both the best and worst place to be if the library were attacked by zombies (generally I judge a good library's set up based on its vulnerability to petty thieves and the walking undead).

As the most government funded institution in the UK it is no surprise to me that this was the most impressive library I have ever seen facility and collection wise; but I haven’t seen the Library of Congress yet, so it probably won’t stay that way.

Getting out of the city - Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon

In the far too early for me morning, our coach left King’s College and our group was on its way to see what happens outside the teeming city; it was a welcome change for me, I’ve been waiting to see some cows and a more compressed High Street with less people.

Thankfully, the route to Oxford had some cows to pass and Oxford’s High Street was very familiar territory with it’s Top Shop and Schuh and available Cornish pasties and bacon rolls (although I didn’t notice the bacon rolls until it was too late and I’d already ordered a pasty, which was slightly painful, the bacon roll is one of England’s greatest inventions in my opinion). Anyhow, I essentially bypassed the historical fare that Oxford has to offer because I was so excited to see a university town with the normal university street fare and went shopping. London has everything that a High Street can offer, but it can be hard to find and involve several trips, and our group is coming back to Oxford so I will be seeing the Ashmolean Museum (hopefully) and more of the uni including the Bodleian Library.

I visited Stratford on my very first jaunt to England back in the year 2000 with my high school AP English class and I am pleased to say that it hasn’t changed much, it’s High Street has vastly improved, but I was there to see some Shakespeare sites and get sensations of déjà vu about having my picture taken in the garden behind Hall’s Croft.

First we visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, where the guides were helpful in explaining the hospitalities of Shakespeare’s age (nicest bed in the front) and how to make gloves and how much flesh-scraping that involves, as well as how Shakespeare’s father would have run his shop out of the front window. From the birthplace we traveled to Nash’s House/New Place, the former living space of Shakespeare’s granddaughter and the end of his line as well as the site of the very, very large house that Shakespeare owned and that was destroyed by a later owner because he didn’t want to pay taxes, apparently his sense of patriotism and appreciation of the arts was seriously lacking. After that site we made our way to Hall’s Croft, which is where I remember standing in 2000 and thinking, ‘So, nothing in any of these houses was actually owned by any of the people we’re talking about? Okay.’ I’ve come to refer to these as the ‘I don’t know’ portions of tours, Stonehenge has a giant section about what they don’t know about its functions and that does irk me a bit as someone used to seeing actual artifacts that aren’t just period-accurate. It was much more impressive seeing Jane Austen’s actual writing desk and Charlotte Bronte’s actual gloves than seeing desks and gloves of the period, but of course they are far newer figures to history than Shakespeare and his family (and of course we saw what very well might be Shakespeare’s signature at the British Library later on).

After Hall’s Croft it was time to see some dead people, who (although not having literally seen them I can’t verify) were actually located inside their burial sites and gave that air of authenticity I needed. The Holy Trinity Church in Stratford has the burial sites of Shakespeare, his daughter, granddaughter, and Anne Hathaway to round out the main family right in front of the altar. The church itself is quite beautiful on the inside, the woodwork has many embellishments and in the stalls lining the space in front of the altar and the graves of the Shakespeare family one can sit on little gargoyles and smirking faces.

This trip to Stratford did include one thing I hadn’t done the first time I came, seeing some Shakespeare, specifically Macbeth, at the Swan Theatre. Macbeth has always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, I like that it’s both depressing and Scottish, and when I read it I had reactions to more of the lines and wanted to write them down than any other of his plays. This performance was excellent, well acted, well costumed, well staged in a different kind of theatrical space than I’ve seen. I was at first very amused by the signs outside the seating area proclaiming that this performance would have lots of graphic elements and loud banging; amused until I realized my group was sitting next to the PA and the orchestra when the play started. Loud banging indeed.