Thursday, July 25, 2013

to Edinburgh we go

Sunday 7/14-Monday 7/15: Arriving/A quick visit to the National Library, Edinburgh

We made the long, long, LONG, bus ride to Edinburgh on Sunday, ending up at one of the most beautiful estates I have ever seen: Dalkeith Palace.  Sprawled over 800 acres, the estate is the home of a University of Wisconsin study abroad program, and we were lucky enough to stay there for our journey to the libraries of Edinburgh.  Built in the early 18th century, it still has some of the original wood paneling and marble decoration, and we were encouraged to open the many numerous doors to explore where they lead.  Now, it was a little different than what I'm used to as far as living conditions - I had to sleep in a 7-person room, and there are only 2 bathrooms between the 50 or so people that were there - but it really was a lovely estate... and it was quiet!  It really was so nice to get out of the city for a few days, and breathe the clean, (much) cooler air.

Our first visit for our trip was a quick stop at the National Library of Scotland.  Though not a scheduled tour visit, our professor did want us to stop by and explore a little.  This visit was especially exciting for me, as the Library has just recently put a Jane Austen display together, featuring a rare first edition of Pride & Prejudice.  Furthermore, the exhibit focused on the novel's influence over the last 200 years, and it's adoption, and evolution, in popular culture.  Though a very small display (only one case), it has a profound message; Jane Austen is now more popular than ever, and her works and themes are still relevant today.  It was a nicely done mini-exhibit, and I am so, so lucky to have been able to see such a rare treasure as that first edition.

I couldn't take pictures at the Library, but here are some photos of Dalkeith.  Oh, and I forgot to mention the hairy coo.  What's a hairy coo, you ask?  It's a hairy cow, also known as a Highland Cow.  Really, it should be the co-mascot of Scotland; partners with the sheep.  They are so cute, and they have one at Dalkeith (though I don't have a picture of it).

A hairy coo: photo from

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Down into the basement we go

Friday 7/12: The British Museum Archives

The British Museum is a glorious, expansive, overwhelming place full of artifacts from around the world (let's not dwell on how the collection was created), and underneath it all is a little-known basement room full of treasures that few get the privilege of exploring: the museum archives.

Stephanie, the archivist, is what we call a "lone arranger," meaning she works alone.  Though she is part of the legal department, her responsibility is handling the museum archives, which consist of the business records of the museum; the 8 collecting departments are responsible for their own records.  Now, that may sound a little boring, but that is not the case at all.  Looking through some of the items that are in the collection reveals an almost humorous sentiment regarding the people, places, and things surrounding the museum in past years; the word 'sober' tends to appear frequently - which is not what one would expect to find.  The records start in 1753, and the current records are still added.  The only exception is the staff/personnel records, which are handled and maintained by the National Archives.

There is a reading room in the center of the museum, which is now closed off and used as temporary exhibition space, but as new space is being built, the reading room will once again be open.  The reading room records are held in the archives that we were shown, and they contain some interesting things as well.  Back in the day, a user would have to write a letter to the museum requesting access to the reading room, fill out the application, and then mail it back to the museum to have their request reviewed.  Stephanie showed us the applications from Bram Stoker, Beatrix Potter, and T.S. Elliot, to name just a few.  If a person came into the reading room, they were required to sign in, and Stephanie showed us some famous signatures in the registers that are held in the archive including Beatrix Potter and Karl Marx.  There are also some fascinating artifacts contained within this collection, including the shell from the bomb that hit the Coins & Metals room during the Blitz.

Both before, and after visiting the archives, I walked around the museum a bit to find the things I absolutely had to see.  It gets pretty busy in there rather quickly, so I had must must-see list ready.  The Rosetta Stone was first, of course, the mummies, and the Vindolanda Tablets (which I'm sure you've never heard of).  There was also an exhibit, "Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum," that I visited, and it was spectacular (I couldn't take pictures though, so you'll just have to trust me).

"Dr. Livingstone, I presume"

Thursday 7/11: The Royal Geographical Society

Founded in 1830 as the Geographical Society of London, the Royal Geographical Society (or, RGS as I will call it throughout this post) aims to promote the science of geography through exploration, teaching, and academic study; the latter now being the primary focus.  We visited the reading room, which opened in 2004, with the principal librarian, Eugene, as our guide.

The RGS has over 2 million items in its collections, and half of that is just maps.  They have about 2,000 atlases with the oldest dating to 1490.  A large quantity of images is also held in the collections, mainly photos that document the history of British exploration.  About 15,000 images have been digitized, both for the sake of user access, but also to protect some of the most fragile items.  Books only make up a relatively small part of the collection at approximately 250,000 volumes, 150,000 of which are books and the rest bound periodicals.  The remainder of the collection consists of archives, fellowship certificates (which help with genealogy), and museum objects, or artifacts.

Interestingly, RGS does not use any classification scheme, but rather a shelf marker system that labels each item with its location on a particular shelf.  They do, however, enter everything into their database which provides a central access point to the collections.  We've seen this a lot in the places we have visited so far, and I find it interesting that this is more the case than not, as opposed to the US where similar institutions will generally always have some sort of classification system in place.

Eugene had laid out the reading room table with oodles of goodies for us to look at, and as he went around the table explaining the objects, he also gave us a (much needed) lesson in British geographical history.  Below are some pictures of the objects he showed us, including the hats that Stanley and Livingstone were wearing when they met, Darwin's pocket sextant from his voyage on the Beagle, a petrified biscuit and piece of chocolate, Shackleton's balaclava, Mallory's boot, and some beautiful hand-sketched maps from some of these famous explorers.  These items have found a safe, and permanent, home at the RGS, where they will be well-preserved and taken care of by this team of professionals.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Yeah, you can touch that!

Wednesday 7/10: National Art Library at the V&A

We found ourselves at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum early Wednesday morning after a very late night (our bus didn't get back from Stratford until 2:30am!).  And though I am so not a morning person, this visit would prove to be worth the severe sleep deficiency I was experiencing.

Our lovely guide, Sally, took us through the National Art Library on a behind-the-scenes tour that very few get to see.  Opened to the public in 1858, his library at the V&A is one of the top 3 art libraries in the world, and its strength lies in its holdings which number over 1 million items.  The collections cover many countries and many time periods, and all topics in the arts.  The library is a closed-access facility, meaning that items are not loaned out, and all requests for materials are made through the online system.  Items are issued through a counter, but in order to provide better service to their users, they are working to implement a self-service counter that will streamline retrieval.

Interestingly, the books have no classification system that we would be used to in the U.S.  Instead, books are shelved by size, and an in-house numbering and shelving system is implemented.  Organizing the books in this way allows for maximization of space, an important commodity when storage is limited; there are still many books in the intake area which are still waiting for homes.

The last part of our visit was a very special treat.  Sally brought us to a room with a table that was covered in beautiful books.  She explained each one in order of its date, beginning with an exquisite illuminated manuscript, a Book of Hours, from the early 15th century.  Next was an exact reproduction of one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, worth huge sums even as a copy.  Other items included a book of prints from Edward Leer, the manuscript from David Copperfield (in Dickens' own hand), and a drawing from Picasso.  Not only did we get to see, and touch, these amazing works, we also were shown some examples of books as works of art including a book sculpture by Genevieve Sielle, and a binding and housing for one of Dickens' Edwin Drood.

What a(nother) fantastic day!

Friday, July 12, 2013

All the world's a stage...

Tuesday 7/9: Stratford-upon-Avon

My class took a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, on Tuesday.  We didn't have any appointments to visit institutions, so we were pretty much free to do whatever.  I'm not really a fan of Shakespeare (gasp!), so I just wandered around the town exploring for most of the day, and spent the later part of the afternoon in a coffeeshop working on the blog and other internet-related work.

The treat of the day was later that night, as we had tickets to see As You Like It performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I have read that play back in school (a long, long time ago) but had not yet seen it performed.  This was a modernized interpretation, and it was excellent.  I really liked everything about it... well, except for the weird dancing at the beginning - I really don't know how to explain it, it was just strange. But overall, it was really good, and again I am just awestruck at all of the awesome things I get to do on this trip.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Photos from C.Boddie

sidebar: Pride & Prejudice at Regent's Park

So I think I have officially decided on my paper topic for my research that I'm supposed be doing whilst traveling about the English countryside: Jane Austen.  It's an excellent opportunity for me to research and write about something I am passionate about.. and it helps that this is the 200th anniversary of the publishing of P&P, my absolute favorite of her novels so there are lots of extra events and exhibits about her, her life, and her work.

Take, for example, Monday night (7/8), where a few of the girls from my class and I ventured to Regent's Park Open Air Theatre for the play, Pride & Prejudice.  It was such an excellent play, and very well done.  And there was not a bad seat in the entire round theatre; our seats were quite spectacular.  As this was an open air theatre, there wasn't really a backstage area, and instead there was a lot of extra stuff going on in the background, but it did not in any means take away from what was going on in the front.  The set changes were very neat, and as the stage rotated, it was really a character in itself.  I also appreciated that it was a true-to-book interpretation, and they didn't go off on some crazy tangent.  One of my favorite things, and if you've read the book or seen the movie this might surprise you, was the actor who played Mr. Collins.  His interpretation of the character was, by far, the best one I have ever seen; he was hilarious, and really played it up.  It was a fantastic play, and I am so very happy to have had the chance to see it!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

London's history found in a pile of dirt

Monday (7/8):  Museum of London Archaeological Archives

As someone who has studied archaeology - I have a BA in Anthropology - this site was such a delight to visit.  Dan, the Assistant Curator, was our guide for the morning, and as he led us around the facility, I felt more and more like this is the kind of institution that I would love to work at when I enter the field.

Located in a converted steel tubing warehouse, now called the Morton Wheeler House, the London Archaeological Archive and Research Center (LAARC) contains the largest archaeological archive in the world.  Also located in the building is the Museum of London Archaeology Department, which consists of 120 or so field staff who actually do the digging.

The collections range from prehistoric items, like flints, to the 20th century.  One main collecting focus is the Social and Working History collections, which consists of artifacts concerning objects of everyday life.  The collection is housed in 6 themed rooms, and Dan took us into the one housing toys and games.  The rows and rows of metal cabinets hold everything from board games to puppets, and everything in between.  In all rooms, temperature and humidity are carefully monitored to ensure the proper preservation atmosphere for these precious items.  As we made our way through the facility there was just so many interesting things to see; a telephone switchboard from Buckingham Palace, the royal urinal from the Royal Opera House, and a cannonball used as a Shakespearean play prop.  The facility will accept anything that from London history that they don't have already, so they just have so much.

We walked through the processing area, which is where the material from the archaeological sites is brought in and processed - washed, examined, catalog, and packaged.  Each item is given a 3-letter, 2-number code, based on the excavation it came from.  Additional numbers are added if the item is more unusual, and ultimately displayable.  Because the collection is so large, packaging has been standardized for efficiency, continuity, and of course, space.  The displayable items are packaged differently, and kept separately from the bulk materials archive, which is used primarily for research.  All paper records, site maps, and stratigraphic diagrams from excavations are also kept, ensuring the totality of the context for future users and researchers.

sidebar: A weekend of adventures

The weekend (7/5 and 7/6) brought two day trips available to anyone in our program; Stonehenge and Winchester on Saturday, and Dover Castle and Canterbury on Sunday.

The visit to Stonehenge was quick.. but how much time do you really need to walk around a pile of rocks?  It was great to be able to see it, but you can't go up to it anymore, and instead, visitors are corralled around a walking path; yeah, it's still close, but just not the same as being able to touch the stone.

We then ventured off to Winchester, which lay about a half-hour away.  Now, I didn't really do much in Winchester (though I would have loved to) because I ventured to Chawton House - Jane Austen's home for the later part of her life.  After figuring out tickets, and getting on bus - which by the way did not have any listing for stops - we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere at a traffic circle, Chawton Roundabout.  Thank goodness for friendly bus drivers and well-posted traffic signage.  It was, luckily, only a few minutes walk to the nearby town, where the house is neatly situated on a corner.

If you've ever imagined what it would be like to visit the home of your absolute favorite historical hero, multiply it by a thousand and that's what it actually feels like.  It was so awe-inspiring to walk in her footsteps, to see her room, and to touch the walls.  I wanted to move in, and live there forever... but with air conditioning.

We traveled back to town and headed for Winchester Cathedral, where Jane is buried.  But, if you didn't already know, everything in this country shuts down at 5:30... everything.  And the church was technically closed to tourists for evensong as we made our way in.  So we snuck in.  I couldn't help it, I had traveled so far and I had to see it.  I placed my flower on her marker, and we made our way out - quickly.

The next day we ventured to Dover Castle and Canterbury - no side trips or sneaking around, I promise.  Dover Castle was interesting, and such a beautiful view from high up on the white cliffs.  Built in the 12th century, some of the tunnels were modified into secret war rooms during World War II.  I ventured through the tower, and around the grounds taking in all the history.

The later part of the day was spent in Canterbury, where I visited the famed Canterbury Cathedral, well-known as the site where Thomas Becket was killed.  A shrine stands at the spot, and a candle constantly burns in the crypt.  The tombs of the Black Prince, and Henry IV are also here.