New York Transitting

“You’ve been following the museum’s Twitter account for nearly four years and you don’t even live in the country??” 

It was at this moment that I realised one of my hosts did not fully appreciate the level of my public transportation geekdom. Yes, I had been following @NYTransitMuseum since 2011. No, I had not been to NYC since 2009. No, I did not think this was weird. [They post archive photos and tidbits of American transit knowledge – plus, every so often they have a chat with the @ltmuseum!]

Obviously, a trip to the museum had to be included on my travel itinerary, and by fortunate twist of fate, it happened to be only ten minutes walk from my hosts’ apartment in Brooklyn. Incredibly, they hadn’t visited in the year that they had been living in the neighbourhood! I mean, seriously?? But both felt like it was a suitable post Sunday brunch activity, and joined me in the transport geekery fun.

Three have fun in the NYC Transit Museum

For anyone who has experienced the multiple levels of the London Transport Museum, the New York version is on the small side. However (and it’s a big however) New York’s museum is only in a FLIPPING DISUSED SUBWAY STATION!!! Hello ultimate geek heaven! Transit history AND a disused station?? My goodness!

The disused (but still live) platforms are put to great use, housing a history of subway carriages – which, quite honestly, was a highlight for everyone. Carriage design doesn’t seem to have changed too dramatically in recent decades, but the adverts certainly have. I think we got as much joy out of their bizarre-ness and political incorrect-ness as a little kid dressed in his own MTA uniform had jumping on and off the carriages! [Seriously, I wish I’d asked to take a photo of him – it was clearly a clever home-made job for a transport mad 3 year old. Soooo cute!]  A selection are below, without comment…

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What the museum does a great job of is charting the progress of some pretty iconic NYC transit things – like the train carriages. We appreciated the collection of historic turnstiles and subway tokens immensely – working out which ones would have been functioning on previous visits to the Big Apple, and (obviously) discussing the relative merits of New York’s turnstiles and MetroCards versus London’s ticket barriers and Oyster cards. [Clearly London wins on that front, although NYC gets bonus points for not needing to touch out.]

Special mention should also be given to the current featured exhibition ‘Bringing back the City’, featuring three different disasters in recent years (9/11, Hurricane Sandy and a power outage that none of us had heard of!), their impact upon public transit, and the MTA’s response. The 9/11 section was particularly fascinating, partly because the impact was huge (some of the network still isn’t functioning properly) and partly because the response was incredible. Did you know that up to 40 new transit maps were issued PER DAY in the first days after the attack?? In a pre smartphone world, these, plus staff with loud hailers, were the only way in which to get information out to passengers.

My only regret about the visit was that my stay in NYC didn’t coincide with any of the tours they give of another abandoned station – the beautiful City Hall station which closed in 1945. It would have been worth a membership fee for the museum and the $50 ticket for that experience!

Borough Hall Station

Fortunately, the station I used the most (Brooklyn’s Borough Hall) is considered another excellent example of subway design… 

Something old and something new

I have two history degrees. I like old things. I particularly like the old things that reside in London. And this is why I now have a reputation for being something of a tour guide on call for visitors (generally Americans) arrive in the best of Big Smokes. Thanks to guiding a couple of Texans around the city two years ago, this reputation is particularly valued by Matryoshka Haus. The arrival of interns or random visitors often elicits a request for a tour, which I’ll usually provide unless utterly overwhelmed with work.

Touring with Shannon & LaurenAs 2013 MH intern Lauren put this at the time (she’s unpictured – this is me chatting to her friend Shannon), I was their “Royal racontour”. Got to love Lauren’s puns…

Two weeks ago, I did it again, this time for the winners of Matryoshka Haus’ regular raffle prize of a trip to London. Suzy and Jeff had never left North America before, and this trip coincided with their 25th anniversary. No pressure there then! As ever, it was a joy to show off the city. In case you’re interested (or want your own – my fees are reasonable…) the tour begins at Embankment station, travels along the Embankment to Westminster, around the Palace, across Parliament Square, down Whitehall, through Horse Guards and into St James’ Park towards Buckingham Palace. It’s a nifty way of getting in the best-known landmarks in a minimal amount of time. But, while I was showing my new friends sights that were old friends to me, it turned out they had something new (yet old) for me.

Jeff & SuzyAmerican guests on the bridge mid-way through St James’ Park – one of the best spots to get a view of the Eye, or Buckingham Palace.

It turned out Jeff had one burning desire for his trip to London – a visit to the Churchill War Rooms. He wasn’t sure if they were open [bad Imperial War Museum, the pop-up notice that the main museum is currently shut is not helpful when looking at the website of one of your other sites!!], but we popped by en route to Horse Guards and discovered it was indeed. We immediately joined the queue (and met some Americans who had lived/worked in the same neighbourhoods as my Americans – because the world is that small and American tourists really like to chat with each other) and the visitors were incredulous that I’d never been before.

Turn off the switchThe signs were terribly polite in WW2.

It’s got to be said, it is VERY worth shelling out the dosh to visit! I can’t believe this historic site was nearly left to rot away into an historical footnote – saved by the efforts of Michael Heseltine, of all people. The rooms that housed the Cabinet office and its staff during WW2 have been preserved (or restored, some were used as storage rooms after the war) meaning that you get an excellent idea of what it would have been like to work down there (one word: unpleasant). Utterly fascinating – even for non-History buffs – especially as everyone is issued with a highly informative audio guide. Mid-way through the tour, there’s a newer section featuring a museum of Churchill’s life (hence the change in name just over a decade ago) which has been done brilliantly – especially the virtual filing machine style timeline of his life laid out across a table at its centre.

A key on his majesty's serviceA secret key? 

The moral of this tale? It is never too late to discover new joys in London!

Talking of new joys. An actual new joy – as in physically new, as opposed to new to me – is the Shard. Specifically, as discovered a week ago, its cocktails on the 55th floor (the views aren’t too shabby either).

Shard cocktailsThat would be a Spring Julep, served in a frozen mini chalice. (Oh, and note to parents: my hair has changed since this photo…)

Shard ViewThe view from the 55th floor.

A Titanic “experience”

The most popular tourist attraction in Belfast has, for the last year, been the curiously named ‘Titanic Experience’. What kind of an experience do visitors have? You may well wonder…

On my last trip to Belfast (11 months ago), we attempted to pay a visit but discovered that owing to its popularity, advance booking was essential. [Instead we explored the incredibly moving memorial to the ship in the dock where it was built.] This time, tickets were booked as soon as my flights were confirmed and, this afternoon, my mother and I spent nearly two hours thoroughly ‘experiencing’ the Titanic. [She’d visited a few months ago and was insistent that a visit was well worth it.]

I’m pleased to report that the experience element of the museum has nothing to do with the events of April 1912 – there is no water and no ice. In fact, the exhibition does an amazing job of not sensationalising the disaster that befell the Ship of Dreams. (Not that the disaster wasn’t a massive tragedy, just that it’s one aspect of the ship and the shipyard’s history.)

H&WHarland & Wolf gates

Instead, what you experience is what the process of shipbuilding was like in the early part of the twentieth century. That may not sound particularly riveting (!), but it really was. Ok, I’m a history geek and love nothing more than a good exploration of social history, but this was done brilliantly – not least the bit of the experience entitled ‘shipbuilding ride’. I’ll say no more, but it was funner than it sounds.

Part of the experience is the result of the building’s architecture – based on the ship’s design and the iceberg that sank it. At various points you emerge from the galleries into light spaces with windows looking out on to the docks. In one such moment, you can stand in precisely the place where Kate and Leo were on top of the world…

View from the bow of the TitanicView from the bow of the Titanic while it was being built.

Ship building transformed the city of Belfast and this is a fantastic testament to that element of its history. It’s also a moving memorial to one of the shipping revolution’s biggest disasters. There isn’t a minute by minute rundown of how the sinking occurred (surely most people know the score thanks to James Cameron?), instead, you see it as it was recorded by the wireless operators on board the Titanic and other ships in the area, including the Carpathia which ultimately came to the surviving passengers’ rescue. The rescue operation, inquest and stories of those lost are chronicled with sensitive detail.

Glimpses of the TitanicThe bow of the Titanic as it now looks under water.

Oh, and it’s only fair to warn you that the penultimate gallery (prior to a segment on the discovery of the wreck in 1985) is dedicated to depictions of the tragedy in the arts. Obviously, this section is accompanied by Celine Dion singing *that* song, meaning that thereafter, you will find yourself humming or even singing it to yourself. Admittedly, I should probably confess that I entered the building with a mental list of a musical Titanic medley, consisting of For Those in Peril on the Sea (sung in a service on board), Nearer my God to Thee (played as it sank) and *that* song. Until musical references crept into the later stages of the exhibition, I’d managed to stay quiet. Afterwards, it was an impossibility.

Anyway, if you ever find yourself in the city with a few hours to spare – go. Only don’t try and attempt it with a school group. It’s booked out for school parties until 2015 apparently. That’s how good it is.

Titanic Experience & former H&W building

A pickled Saturday afternoon

One of the amazing things about London is that, despite its horrific expense in many areas, there’s quite a fantastic amount of entertainment that can be had for free. Most of the big museums cost nothing (except for major exhibitions), you can find free concerts across the city – heck, today you could even watch ice sculpting gratis at Canary Wharf!

Today, I was en route to Covent Garden (favourite free Saturday haunt) for some ‘aimless mooching’ [it was actually quite specific mooching – I wanted to check out the Fat Face sale (again) and try and acquire a beautiful pair of shoes from M&S (strange, but true)] when I had a text from a friend asking if I’d be up for doing something cultural. But of course I would – especially as their tardiness in getting the day started meant I was able to do my mooching before they arrived.

Various options were explored. There’s some great exhibitions on at the V&A at the moment – from the architecture of tube stations, to chocolate loving and bookbinding. Sir John Soame’s House (close to where we ended up) was an option, as was a potentially pricey Gaugin exhibit at Tate Modern. I was in Fat Face perusing the sale aisle during this conversation and may well have disturbed other customers when I uttered the words “well, what’s not to like about pickled bodies?”.

Our destination ended up being the Hunterian Museum, located in the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a mixture of the history of British surgery and an anatomical exploration of various creatures, both human and non-human (this is where the pickled bodies came in). Embarrassingly, this was my first ever visit, despite it being (quite literally) 30 seconds from where I went to university for three years.

It sounds like quite a niche (and possibly gross) museum in which to spend a Saturday afternoon, but you know what? It’s not so bad – and this is from someone who has to look away when people give injections on TV, or when graphic surgery’s shown. All I would say, is that if you were taking me on a date, this would not be somewhere to take me, hence my surprise that there were so many couples inside (some engaged in particularly annoying PDAs, which are even more inappropriate while stood in front of dead things).

The audience was an interesting mixture of people, from those (mostly young and a tad gothy) who were there for the dead and pickled things; perfectly normal people (like us) who were interested in the history and science; and parents with children – older children who couldn’t be torn away from the rather graphic surgical film (I turned away at the words “now the flap of skin will be stapled to the skull…”) without force. I also spotted a toddler in a pram, which seemed odd – wouldn’t the many, many jars of dead things be disturbing? Then I remembered that Clutterbuck folklore tells that on my first trip to the Natural History Museum (aged 2) I told people on my return that I’d been to the zoo – I’d gone round so quickly that I hadn’t noticed none of the animals were moving! Actually, I was worried I was going round too quickly this time, but it turned out my companion was something of a slow reader and was making notes of every error he found on the displays – once a copy-editor, always a copy-editor.

Some of the many, many jars of dead things and bits of dead things.

Perhaps I’m focussing too much on the dead stuff. In fact, much of the museum is devoted to the history of the collection [sadly two-thirds of it was lost due to bombing in WW2. Things pickled in alcohol tend not to survive fire…] and the development of surgery over the last couple of centuries. Never will you be more grateful to the NHS, or thankful that you weren’t living a century ago. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also walk around the museum clutching different bits of your body as they’re mentioned. Teeth? Jaw will suddenly clench and your hand will go to your mouth. Stomach? Arms wrapped around you protectively. Women’s bits? Cross legs and inwardly cringe. [TMI? Apolgies.] 
But what have I learnt? That until the 20th century, surgeons didn’t need to have qualified as doctors – in fact, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, you could just pop along and watch a surgeon at work to learn the trade, eeek. Until anaesthetics and infections were properly understood, it was best to carry out amputations as fast as possible – one surgeon managing it in 28 seconds (with a curved knife). Oh, and the possibility of a future where antibiotics no longer work is very, very scary.
As we finished the history of surgery exhibit, a question crossed my mind. What was the gift shop going to be like? An important question I feel, after all, it’s always the highlight of any museum visit. Would I be able to buy my very own pickled lizard? (I was very taken by the pickled lizards, somehow reptiles, amphibians and similar looked less wrong pickled than mammals and made me a lot less sad than the collection of human foetuses at the end of the museum did.) Sadly, I was to be disappointed, the shop was small and contained little medical related tat – though you could buy a syringe-like pen or a history of amputation (costing £100). 
I do hope this hasn’t put you off – it is a good, free afternoon’s entertainment, honest! Best not to eat just before you go, just in case you are of a particularly sensitive disposition. (Although, I’d not had lunch and felt my stomach start to rumble viciously half-way round, which felt rather wrong, while looking at stomach operations…) Oh, and you get a badge on a lanyard while you’re in the building – did I mention that? Possibly the most exciting aspect of the entire visit! 

The Pencil Museum and other distractions (Updated)

Really disappointed – C and I didn’t make it to the Pencil Museum this morning. We got within sight of it, then realised we only had 10 minutes till our taxi arrived, so we had to give up on it. This meant that we didn’t get to enact our plans…

Firstly, to stand in front of the museum brandishing pens in mockery of the pencil.
Secondly, to buy a pencil. (With the name of the museum on, of course.)
(Can you tell that we came up with both ideas rather late at night utterly frazzled from a hard night’s work?)

We did get the above photo – just to show we almost made it.

Turns out there’s tons to do in Keswick. How about an Oxfam Megastore? C was rather sad that I said there wasn’t enough time to visit it, yet made the time to pop into Fat Face (twice in 5mins – to the amusement of the sales assistant) to check out some gorgeous red cable knit slippers. (Note for family: red, with buttons, in a large…)

Oh, and despite the heavy clouds warning of further torrential rain and flooding, Keswick was looking rather lovely. Go visit – just make sure you allow enough time for the museum and other distractions.

Update: On telling my Dad of the disappointment I felt at missing out on the Pencil Museum he revealed that my Great Aunt Mary had actually worked in the pencil factory that inspired the museum! A family connection means a trip will definitely have to be made at some point.