An unexpected day out

I had an unexpected day out in London last Wednesday. I don’t mean that someone grabbed me and Fedex’d me to Charing Cross or anything like that. I mean, that only happened to me that one time. But I had a really great day. It was the first time for ages that I’ve been to London and actually had some time to look around.

I’d planned to go to the capital for a couple of work meetings and had saved money by booking my train tickets a couple of weeks in advance. Typically, no sooner had I booked my (non-refundable) tickets than one of my two meetings got postponed. And then, while I was actually on the train out of Bristol, the other one got pushed to a later date, too. But what the hell. All the more time for sightseeing…

I started off with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I thought at first that it wasn’t that impressive, but then realised that I’d come in through the back door by mistake. But as I made my way around to the front entrance, I was struck by how well everything had been put together. They had, for example, made some fantastic use of visual artwork to set a nautical tone. Here’s my favourite…

The writing on the wall

The other thing that impressed me was the scale of the place. Being in a rather large old building with a three-storey roofed courtyard in the middle, there was plenty of scope for larger exhibits and displays that really showed the majesty of some of our maritime heritage. Here’s a rather imposing display of figureheads…

Figureheads

There was also a particularly emotive exhibition about some of the people who have featured prominently in Britain’s seafaring heritage, with the stories behind them and displays of some of their possessions. Some of the stories were rather profound. And others were, quite simply, heartbreaking. The sea and untimely death, it appears, go hand in hand. There was also some more brilliant artwork…

More writing on the wall

I then wandered up the hill to the Royal Observatory, home of the Astronomers Royal, Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian. It’s funny, really, how something of such prominence in the history of the world should consist of such a modest, understated collection of buildings (if you ignore the massive dome housing a 28-inch refracting telescope). But as a keen physicist and astronomer myself, I was, to be honest, a little overawed.

Royal Observatory

There are also some great views from the hill on which the observatory is sited, looking north over the whole expanse of London. Here, for example, is Canary Wharf. (A sign, perhaps, that the era of understatement is over.)

Canary Wharf

And here’s the charming Millennium Dome, or whatever it’s called now. Which, apparently, you can see from space. But not, luckily, from Bristol.

The Dome

And here, far away in the distance, is the Gherkin. If you’re not sure which building I’m talking about, the Gherkin is the one with the diagonal stripes and a black lid. And no, I don’t know why it’s called the Gherkin. It looks more like a goth’s lipstick.

The Gherkin

Yes, I couldn’t resist. Here’s me standing over the prime meridian. My right foot is in the eastern hemisphere and my left foot is in the west. Zero degrees of longitude. The world starts here. I’m glad I thought to wear some smart shoes.

Me on the meridian

While at the observatory, I stopped in to look at the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition. And, quite simply, wow. I mean, wow. Some of the images just took my breath away. Clearly, the organisers will go nuts if I stick any of the photos up here, so check out their website and see what I mean. Or even better, catch the exhibition while it’s on (it’s there until 17th February next year – and entry is free) and learn more about the photos and the people who took them.

An my way back to the station to catch the train home, and after a mad dash to check out the flagship Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I stopped in to see my little sister and her new baby, Otto. He’s only about a month old, so he’s still really teeny. Here’s the little fella. As you can tell, he was absolutely delighted to see me…

Otto

And then, after a rather tiring but absolutely fantastic day, it was time for home… and bed.

And a positive (though slightly odd) museum experience

Having been perhaps a little negative in my review of the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in my previous post, I wanted to tell you about the other museum that I went to during my recent stay in Germany. Because this one was pretty fantastic and was a much better example of what a museum should be like. But the story of how I came to be there is a little odd, so I’ll start with that.

In the museum

Light, colourful and cheerful – not your average museum

The reason for our trip to the continent was an invitation to the wedding of Natalie’s brother, Dom, to his fiancee, Kathrin. For reasons that are still a little unclear, the pair had decided to get married in Duisburg, which is in the middle of the industrial Ruhr region of Germany. (And quite a way from where they or either sets of parents live, hence the slight confusion.) The ceremony was at midday and the reception didn’t start until the evening, so Dom and Kathrin (DomKat?) thought that they had better arrange some kind of activity for their guests in the afternoon.

They decided, as you do, that what the wedding party needed was a guided tour of a museum. And not just any museum, you understand, but the Museum der Deutschen Binnenschifffahrt – the Museum of German Inland Waterway Navigation. I may come across as a little dubious here, but the museum was actually pretty amazing and I’m really glad that they took us there.

In the museum

Not your typical museum (or wedding) behaviour

The museum itself is housed in an old swimming baths, with separate pools for men and women. But rather than do away with the old decor, the people who run the museum have decided to integrate it into their exhibits – and have done so spectacularly well. And while our guide admitted readily that this was the first time in eight years working there that he’d hosted a wedding party at the museum, he took it all in his stride and quickly got into the spirit of things.

The focus of the museum is on two ships, one a genuine old sailing boat and one a slightly shortened replica of a modern day motor barge. These are berthed, in a fit of inspired genius, in the old swimming pools, which have been retained exactly as they would have been. With gratings installed at what would have been water level, this means that you can wander around both above and below the waterline of the ships. In one case, they have even set up a small diving scene, with a mannequin in a diving suit and a whole load of rusted objects strewn around the ‘sea bed’.

In the museum

Underwater view: Making the most of the surroundings

Around the edges of the swimming pools are a variety of models, artefacts and display boards highlighting other aspects of the history of Germany’s inland waterways, including historic boats and sailing ships (from dugout canoes onwards), old anchors (which we were encouraged to try to lift) and even a replica of an old sailors’ tavern.

At each stage of our tour, we were encouraged to get hands-on with the exhibits, whether by looking around the replica of the modern barge, trying out the pump that would have been used to provide divers with an air supply (that’s what the thing is in the photo of the happy couple, in case you were wondering) or wheeling cargo around on an old sack-truck. Our guide even came up with a range of novel photo-opportunities for the bride and groom, including on the bridge of the freighter, mucking around with the pump (as you’ve already seen), ringing an old ship’s bell or posing alongside the majestic old sailing barge.

In the museum

Visitors are encouraged to get hands-on with the exhibits

To be honest, this isn’t the sort of museum that I would have visited if I had been in charge of the itinerary. But it would have been my loss, as the people who run the place have taken what could have been quite a dry topic and have made it into something exciting, vibrant and alive.

Rather than just hearing about names, places, dates and objects that are so often seen as the key to the past, we were introduced to the people who worked on the boats and experienced in some small way what life was like for them and their families. And that, to me, is what history is all about.

How not to run a museum

When I was in Germany a couple of weeks back, my wife and I took an hour or so away from our family duties and paid a quick visit to the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (Romano-Germanic Museum, or all about the Romans while they were in Germany) in the centre of Cologne. The city was a major Roman settlement and every time someone tries to build something – or even just dig a hole – more of its history comes to light. Given this amazing potential, we had high hopes for the museum and its exhibits.

In the museum

If you build it, they will come. Er, no.

To say that the museum fails completely to do justice to the city and its historic past, however, is to be polite. True, it does have some fantastic pieces, such as a huge Roman mosaic and a spectacular array of statues. But in this electronic, hands-on age, to simply line everything up and label it shows a distinct lack of effort. Cologne’s history is truly amazing, but the museum seemed more like a musty old storeroom than a celebration of the city’s past, present and future.

Some Roman coins

Boooooring!

Now, I may not be an expert when it comes to museums. But I have been to quite a few over the years and I know what gets me engaged and what just turns me off. So here are my top six Römisch-Germanische improvements, just in case someone rings me up tomorrow and says ‘OK, Herr Smarty Pants. You think you can do better? So why don’t you just get back over here and show us what you’ve got, my friend?’

1. Make it welcoming. When we wandered in through the museum’s front door, we were faced with a miserable looking lady sat at a desk in the corner. Once she had (grudgingly) sold us two tickets, these were checked by a surly security guard before we were allowed into the exhibits themselves. Everything about it screamed ‘what do you think you’re doing here, pond scum?’ Not a great first impression. Let’s replace the desk with a counter front and centre, get the lady to smile, greet visitors with a ‘welcome to the museum’ and replace the security guard with someone in a ‘Civus Romanus sum’ T-shirt.

2. Ditch the uniforms. Patrolling the exhibits were a team of uniformed staff, whose purpose seemed very much to be making sure that we didn’t cause any trouble, steal anything or enjoy ourselves in any way. I didn’t see them interact with any of the visitors, though their eyes followed us around the room throughout our visit. What’s that all about? I’d swap the official-looking uniforms for something less formal and task these people (who are all perfectly pleasant, if the lady I approach to ask if it was OK to take photos is anything to go by) with making sure that everyone was enjoying the museum and getting the most from their visit.

3. Introduce some interactivity. Lining up exhibits in glass cases with little labels is sooooo last century. Rather than just looking at little Roman lamps, lets get some replicas that we can play with. Same with the coins, jewellery and cooking implements. And while we’re at it, perhaps we could get some drama students to dress up as Romans and give people a bit more insight into the history of the people behind the objects by telling stories, giving demonstrations and getting visitors involved. Why just read about weaving when you could have a go at it yourself?

4. Make some noise. Even though there were quite a few people wandering around the exhibits while we were there, the museum was as silent as the tomb that it clearly wants to be. People stared silently at the statues and spoke in hushed whispers, if at all. This is nuts. Lets get hold of some Roman music to get an atmosphere going, perhaps even some live musicians at weekends and Roman holidays. And why aren’t there sound effects for any of the exhibits? Or audio-visual presentations to accompany some of the major pieces? It’s really not that difficult, people.

Statues

Interactive? Not so much.

5. Open a cafe. This must have been the first museum that I’ve been to that doesn’t have a cafe or restaurant. Once you’ve looked around the exhibits, you leave. That’s it. It’s almost criminal, in my view, that there’s nowhere to sit and mull over what you’ve seen while you down an espresso or tuck into some hearty soup. It’s also a great waste of a potential revenue stream. Especially because there’s an open air courtyard on the top floor that’s just crying out for a coffee bar and some patio chairs.

6. Open a decent shop. While there is a sort-of shop in the foyer area, it’s basically a shelf with a few dusty books on it. If this is going to be a family attraction (and it should be), then we need things that adults and families alike can purchase to commemorate their visit and to help them to learn more about the city’s history. While a few scholarly texts are fine, how about something a little more exciting for anyone who doesn’t happen to be a professor of ancient history?

There we go. Nothing too Earth-shattering, but a few simple ideas for making the Römisch-Germanisches Museum less like a mausoleum and more like the celebration that it should be. I’m sorry to go on about this. But history is incredibly interesting and provides real insight into our present and future as well as our past. Museums that make history out to be something inaccessible that should be revered in silence do a disservice to us all.