A Trip to the V&A

I finally got to visit the new V&A museum and gallery which opened on the riverfront of Dundee recently, which included an enjoyable train trip up from Edinburgh, which takes you across both the massive Forth Rail Bridge and the Tay Rail Bridge to cross both huge firths. The Tay Bridge, while not enjoying the iconic status of its southern cousin on the Forth, has an eerie side to it – as you cross, if you look out the south side of the structure you can clearly see the line of the remnants of piers, which once held up the first Tay Rail Bridge.

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I snapped these two out of the train window, so they’re not the sharpest

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That bridge was an engineering marvel of the age, the designer was knighted for his works, Queen Victoria even travelled over it returning on the Royal Train from a stay at Balmoral. However on December 28th, 1878, a huge, gale-force winter storm struck the Tay, and it transpired that it hadn’t really been designed to take that force hitting side-on to bridge and train. A passenger train was lost as the bridge collapsed, taking sections of bridge and the train with it, seventy five people plunging into the cold waters below, all lost. The replacement bridge runs right alongside the original’s route, but was, as you can imagine, built to be far sturdier, and remains in service to this day. The remnants of the first bridge’s piers now remain like tombstones, a ghostly reminder to all who cross the bridge of the one that was there before.

The V&A Dundee is a striking building, right on the riverfront, next to the famous polar exploration vessel Discovery and its own museum, and right across from the train station, so pretty perfect for visitors to the city.

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It’s an impressive space inside, two main wings, with a lot of open space, windows often giving sudden glimpses of the bridge, the silvery Tay (the most powerful river in the British Isles) and the tall ship, Discovery.

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There are permanent exhibits, many global, but also a good selection that reflects the culture, arts, crafts, industrial, scientific and engineering history of Scotland, with some there drawn from its host city Dundee’s own history, as well as travelling exhibitions (the current one is on tartans).

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(above: the Oak Room designed by the great Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Miss Cranston’s tea rooms. Below: the Kinloss Psalter, a beautiful illuminated work though to date from between 1500 – 1530 CE)

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Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder Exhibition

Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder
Location: National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh
Duration: runs until 1st May 2023

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Having grown up in an era where childhood summer holidays on the Lancashire coastline always included a visit to the famous Doctor Who Exhibition on Blackpool’s Golden Mile, I was delighted to learn that the National Museum of Scotland would be hosting a Doctor Who exhibition right on my doorstep in the heart of Edinburgh. It opened just before Christmas, and I took myself along for a visit just before going back to work after the New Year break, as a little treat to myself. No jelly babies were harmed in the making of this report…

You can buy tickets at the desk on the day, but you can also book in advance, with a time slot (this is also slightly cheaper, and given how popular the museum is with locals and tourists – of which Edinburgh has a great many! – I’d advise booking so you know you are sorted). I had booked a mid-afternoon slot, midweek, which was still actually pretty busy (although to be fair the schools hadn’t gone back after the festive break at this point), and all I had to do was show my e-ticket on my phone, wrap my long scarf around my neck securely, and stroll in through a familiar set of beckoning blue doors.

One of the first sights to greet you on entering is the original 1960s style TARDIS console, although from the look of it, I suspect this is the one which was recreated for use in some of the more recent episodes of the show. It’s still a lovely, retro piece though – all sliding levers, knobs and big, analogue dials, no monitor screen with BBC Model B graphics here! And yes, I do like later iterations of the console, but I really do have a soft spot for this older design. Ah, the good, old Type 40… The sight of this also brought back memories of those summer childhoods getting to explore the long-running Blackpool exhibition, which had the console room at the heart of it – you can imagine to an eight year old how magical that was, the sound effects playing, the lights, the Time Rotor moving; it was very easy to lose your young self in it and imagine for a wonderful moment that it was all real.

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Mark Gatiss, another life-long fan of the show, not to mention one who has appeared and contributed to it over the years, introduces the exhibition on a screen near the console, and there are many screens throughout the various rooms of the exhibition. Many are like that one, pre-recorded “talking heads”, such as scientists discussing physics and the possibility or otherwise of time travel and other elements of the series. There’s a strong educational theme woven into this, looking at the science fiction and trying to relate real-world science to some of it, which seems most appropriate, given that Who, like Star Trek, while fantastical science fiction, has encouraged more than a few young fans to grow up and take on the mantle of real-world scientific research and development.

Other screens, including some designed like coffee tables to stand around, are also educational, but far more interactive, allowing the visitors to examine lifeforms from our own world’s ecosphere, then relate them to imaginary species seen in the show over the years, showing that, although those aliens and others are works of imagination, that imagination is often inspired by real, terrestrial lifeforms, or to see how they would approach attempting to terraform Mars, among other activities to try. While most of this I only looked briefly at as it was clearly aimed at the younger visitors, I strongly approved of them – apart from hands-on activities for youngsters, it’s also no bad thing to be using SF to implant an interest in real science in their young minds. On a related note, if you’ve never been before, the hall between the original Victorian part of the NMS and the modern extension is filled with hands-on items from technology and history that actively encourages young minds to explore, making it a terrific place for family outings (and that part is free!).

Of course it is the items from the show that I imagine many of us will be most interested in, and these range from the large – such as the console or a life-size TARDIS (perfect for taking selfies in front of!) – to the small, such as an array of different Sonic Screwdrivers, arranged chronologically by incarnation, or Captain Jack’s Vortex Manipulator wrist device, from models (including one re-created from original designs from the famously unfinished “Shada” story in the Tom Baker era) to costumes, to full-sized Daleks. One space is the Monster Room because, as Gatiss notes in his introductory video at the very beginning of the exhibition, what is Doctor Who without the monsters? And he’s right, we love them, even when they scared us into hiding behind the sofa and watching with one eye closed, we loved them.

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The Monster Room boasted some wonderful creations from the show, including a full-sized Dalek and the Dalek’s twisted creator, Davros (one nearby video, I noticed showed a clip from that first story appearance of Davros, Genesis of the Daleks, with Tom Baker’s Doctor holding up two ignition wires for an explosive and asking if he had the right to wipe out a whole species, even one so evil, a moral dilemma that impressed itself into my young brain back on the original screening in the mid 70s, where it still remains). We also had Silurians and Sea Devils, Cybermats, Weeping Angels, Ice Warriors, Sontarans, Cybermen, and a nice array of Cyber Heads from the different designs of those iconic villains from across the six decades of the show’s existence.

There were even some other Time Lords in the mix, although of the more villainous stripe, including Omega, the engineer who basically allowed Time Lord culture to exist, and good, old “chop suey” himself, The Brain of Morbius. Also included was a “half Dalek” – those of you of a certain vintage (including myself and our redoubtable editor, John Freeman), will doubtless recall that often tucked away in old amusement arcades in the 1960s and 70s were half-Daleks, essentially a replica but with much of the back of the casing missing, to allow you to get in and sit inside, working the exterminator and sucker arms while screeching “EXTERMINATE!”, which when you are a young child is simply fabulous. Well yes, they had a version of one of those too (oh, the nostalgia!). No, I didn’t have a go, as there were too many younger visitors eager to try being a Dalek, and I got to do that when I was their age so I wasn’t going to hold them up from their shot at it now.

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I must also tip my hat to whoever penned the text accompanying many of the exhibits, which, while doing what they are meant to do, be informative about the item before you, also had a delightful playfulness to them, which I appreciated. The text on the Weeping Angel, for example, explains what they are, how they work, and then concludes with “I hope you didn’t blink while reading this description”. A nearby Cybermat simply has “please do not feed the Cybermat” attached to it, which made me giggle.

I would have liked to see more items from the original era of the series, but I can also understand that many of those items are lost, or too rare and fragile for a travelling exhibition now, and items from the resurrected show are simply more accessible (and also probably more familiar to many visiting, who aren’t even old enough to have gone through their first regeneration yet, unlike us oldies!). The exhibition has its own gift shop stuffed with merchandise from the series, and also some pertaining particularly to the exhibition itself, separate from the regular museum shop. Photography is allowed, as long as you take care not to have any flash activated, understandably, as it can damage delicate exhibits (one a related note, I apologise for some pics not being super-sharp here, but shooting inside an exhibition space with no flash means some pics just don’t come out!).

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The Doctor Who: Worlds of Wonder exhibition runs until the 1st of May, 2023, at the National Museum of Scotland; details and booking information are all on the website here. If making your first visit to the museum, in addition to some of their other excellent exhibits (including a floor by floor tour through Scottish history that takes you from Pictish standing stones to full-sized steam engines), may I also suggest taking the elevator to the Roof Terrace Garden. This is free and offers quite remarkable views across the heart of Edinburgh, to nearby historic Greyfriars kirkyard to the Castle and the roofscape of the Old Town and the mighty Firth of Forth, the volcanic peaks of Arthur’s Seat and the Pentland Hills – it’s one of the finest vantage points to take in the city.

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This piece was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Prehistoric computing

I’ve been meaning to get into the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh since it re-opened in the middle of the summer – it was closed for several years for a huge revamp and I’m glad to have it open to everyone again.  I avoided going in during the height of the tourist season, but last week on a day off I was at my dentist, which is only a few minutes walk from the museum, so I thought why not walk down and spend the afternoon getting familiar with an old friend again? As well as the sorts of things you might expect in a large, Victorian museum – Egyptian mummies, T-Rex skeleton etc – the NMS has a nice line in engineering, science and technology history, part of which includes some now historic ‘hi-tech’ (well, it was at the time), from circuit boards from the massive 50s and 60s computers that filled rooms to this, one of the first of what we’d recognise as a modern home computer, the Commodore PET, from the late 70s.

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First computer I ever saw was one of these, my dad’s friend was an amateur meteorologist and had all sort of tech in his home, including a HAM radio and a printer that gave him direct feeds from a weather satellite (pretty nifty for late 70s). When he added this PET to his collection he had dad bring me round knowing I would find it interesting. Few years later I’d have my own home computer, a Texas Instruments 99/4a and I’ve had a computer of some sort since then (scary to think I have had a computer of some sort for 30 years now). A few years into high school I was given day release with some friends to go into a college in Glasgow one day a week to attend a computer training course, around 83 or maybe 84 – we were gobsmacked to see their computer labs was full of these PETs, because by then these were prehistoric, we expected BBC Model Bs! And their course was for people who had never used a computer, while we had all pretty much taught ourselves how to programme in BASIC several years before and so found what we thought would be an exciting ‘grown up’ course rather dull, but hey, got us a day out of school and into town… Anyway, I posted a shot of this Commodore behind glass in the NMS and shared it on the BoingBoing Flickr pool, noticed a few days later the views on it went crazy – 2, 500 views in about a day, which means a single pic was doing over twice my daily average for my whole Flickr… Turned out Xeni had reposted it on the main BoingBoing blog (one of my fave spots of online reading for many years, also shared the story of my doocing years back). Nice. Seems a lot of people had memories of this, ah, geek nostalgia…

Happy 110th birthday, Kelvingrove

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Today marks the 110th anniversary of a true Scottish institution opening its doors to the public: on May 2nd, 1901 the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum first admitted the people of Glasgow and Scotland to enter within this temple of delights. Generations of Scots have grown up with the Kelvingrove, walking through the pleasures of nearby Kelvingrove park, or coming down from the Gothic spires of nearby Glasgow University and the Bohemian pleasures of studenty Byres Road, to the banks of the Kelvin and this palace of wonders and knowledge and art. Those generations include me: like many children growing up in Glasgow the Kelvingrove was a regular pleasure, my parents taking me in there. It was my childhood idea of what a great museum should be – knights in shining armour, Egyptian mummies, mighty dinosaur skeletons! My, what treasures to delight a wee boy, to spark his imagination and generate a lifelong love of history and learning.

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And the adult me adores it still – when my friend (who also grew up visiting the Kelvingrove) and I went through after the museum re-opened after an extensive refurbishment we both still loved it. A real Supermarine Spitfire hanging from the cieling in one gallery right above a giraffe! An Egyptian sarcophogus. Exquisitely made medieval armour – among the many collections the museum enjoys an international reputation for is its arms and armour, it boasts one of the finest collections anywhere. And then those light filled upper galleries full of artworks, from the Scottish Colourists and the Glasgow Boys to an international panoply of artists of the ages. It is the first place I saw Salvador Dali’s powerful Christ on the Cross, an amazing work even to those of us who have no truck with religion. And it is still free – free to all the citizens of Glasgow and Scotland and our visitors, a people’s palace, open to and run for the people of its city and country, long may it continue.

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rrroaaarrrrr!!!

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The Flashing Blade

Admiring some beautiful, historic swords in the National Museum of Scotland, brings out the Flashing Blade in me, urge to swashbuckle rises… In truth that urge to swashbuckle is never far from the surface, which is probably one of the reason I fenced throughout school and then years later at college. Although not with these. Gorgeous basket-handled Scottish swords, including a very unusual curved blade. Beautiful work, although I prefer a sword with a less elaborate guard so it leaves the fingers and wrist more free to make light, quick movements, which is a better method of defence for the hand than a large guard, at least that’s how I was trained.

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An enormous Claymore – Claymore from this period are generally massive weapons, but I think this one was perhaps ceremonial

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Shadows cast by the Claymore:

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The roofs of Edinburgh

Recently I did something I hadn’t done before – in fact something I didn’t even know you could do: go onto the roof of the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. I’ve been in many times but I had no idea there is a large roof terrace (with native plant garden) that you are free to visit too. I’ve wandered around the museum many times but the signs to the roof aren’t too obvious and most folks in Edinburgh I mentioned it too didn’t realise you could go up there either. Lovely spot offering pretty much 360 degree views over the roofs of the Old Town towards the Mile, over historic Greyfriars Kirk, nearby Edinburgh University, the Pentland Hills beyond the city, Arthur’s Seat, the huge extinct volcano which rears out of the royal park right in the middle of Edinburgh, and, of course, the Castle. Again I find myself wishing I could afford to upgrade to the camera I have my eye on which has much more zoom power, but even so it was still a great and quiet spot to stand and take in the view and shoot a few pics:

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Scottish mining museum

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When I was off earlier this month I went down the coast a little outside Edinburgh to the Scottish Mining Museum, which I’ve been meaning to go to for ages (the 26 bus right from the city centre takes you to right to the entrance). Annoyingly the visitor centre and inside attractions and tours weren’t up and running, even though I had checked the website before going down and it indicated everything was, but I did get to wander around all the surface remains and had the place largely to myself at the time too, quite atmospheric, so quiet now but once teeming with hundreds and hundreds of men working in the mine, the mighty boilers of the power house and the nearby brick kilns. Shot quite a lot of photos and only now uploading them – the first batch are on my Flickr page, with more to follow, and also a short video 360 panorama:

More of the Louvre

Since blogger is grudgingly and slowly letting me upload some pics tonight, some more pics from Paris, still sticking with the Louvre theme:

I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid which now functions as the entrance to the Louvre, descending down into the pyramid to a vast space with the ticket desks, information and entrances to the various wings of what is probably the world’s most famous museum. Turn the other way and walk through the Jardin de Tuileries and you come out into a square leading your eyes up a line straight to the Champs Elysees and L’Arc de Triomphe.

heading into one of the wings with some of the Louvre’s astonishing amount of Classical material

Which includes the world’s original supermodel, The Venus de Milo. Who I believe is now romantically linked with Paul McCartney 🙂

La Joconde – the Mona Lisa, smiling for the many tourists. While photography seemed to be fine in most of the Louvre they did ask – as is the usual case in any gallery – not to use cameras in the rooms with the paintings, probably because so many idiots don’t know how to switch off their flash which damages them. Despite the fact I rarely use the flash I still kept my camera in my pocket for this wing, despite masses of tourists – especially the many Japanese – merrily ignoring the rule and firing camera flashes off right in front of the paintings which made me want to slap them round the head, bloody idiots. There were so many the curators didn’t even try to stop them. I broke my rule and did take one painting pic for this (no flash so I don’t feel to guilty) as people were standing right there in front of curators snapping away.

One of the things I really liked in the wings with the paintings was the fact that several artists had been allowed to set up their easels to paint their own versions of some of the works, something I found to be rather satisfying to see. Actually La Joconde wasn’t the most impressive painting there, famous as she is – the best work I saw (and there were many we didn’t have time to see properly, it is vast) was one that annoyingly I can’t remember the name of, but it reminded me of one of the Venetian paintings I raved about on here a few years back when there was an exhibition on at the Royal Scottish Academy. I wish I could remember the name or artist, but like a couple of the works I saw there it leapt out the frame at me, the colours, especially the blues, so amazingly bright and vibrant it was like the artist had painted Mediterannean sunlight right into the canvas, still pouring out of the painting centuries later.

In the Richelieu wing there was this terrific open space, essentially a sculpture garden indoors, with this amazing glass and steel roof (like a smaller version of the brilliant one now on top of the British Museum in London) shielding us from the elements so it felt like being outside but sheltered. Natural light floods this space and its twin further along the wing (these are the ones in the video clips from the other day) and a lot of artists were making the most of the light to sketch some of the friezes and sculptures; I’d imagine the statues would afford a great class in how to portray human anatomy and form and what a terrific space to draw in. Or take pictures in.

I love this space, I think I could sit here for ages

Inside the glass pyramid – I love the spiral staircase with no visible means of support (not even thin suspended wires); the column it is wrapped round is actually a lift. Its open at the top and the entire column sinks down – it doesn’t telescope down, the entire structure actually slides down into the floor, very cool!

As usual click the pics to see the larger version on the Woolamaloo Flickr stream (only 184 in the Paris set so far, still a ton to add; no doubt many more Paris pics and vids to come!)