Friday, June 11, 2010

Snacks on Site

Food has played a prominent part in the sites we've visited on this trip. Hardly a museum is without its own cafe; even the smallest usually have a tea room. Gift shops, too, regularly include edibles (often locally-produced) in the form of ice cream, chocolates, and jams. Castle Howard had its own small grocery store full of goods from its tenant farms and surrounding areas.

A nearby creamery supplied this themed snack to Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall.

I was prepared to see representations of food in the exhibits. Eating is, after all, one of the things that every visitor has in common with every person in the past. For museums striving to cultivate that sort of personal connection, talking about diets and dining is a common route. Those topics also benefit from natural connections to common collection objects like dishes and utensils.

I was less prepared to see real food in the exhibits. This was my favorite way to encounter it (especially when visitors were allowed to taste!). At Beamish Open Air Museum, costumed interpreters shared the fruits of their demonstrations in historic kitchens. Some were for sale (as in the chocolatier's shop) but others went straight from cast-iron oven to visitor for free. We encountered a similar situation in the “below stairs” area of Harewood House, but the docent there brought in her shortbread from a modern kitchen (she said health and safety regulations restricted use of the old stove). At both sites the food is meant to enrich the visitor's experience by engaging the senses of smell and taste. Both are usually lacking in a classic “sterile” museum environment, but noses and tastebuds are getting more exercise as such techniques become increasingly common in museums.

Bakers in Beamish's mining village making cookies before sharing a different batch with eager onlookers.  (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bush)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Case for Leaving Guidebooks in the Bookstore

For many historic sites, an entry into a guidebook such as Lonely Planet could add thousands of visitors to their per annum. International visitors often turn to these guides as they plan their visit, and many view the carefully worded entries within as hard and fast truths in which they can place the utmost trust. But as many of us realize, either gradually over the course of a string of trips fatefully planned by one of these books, or abruptly in the middle of touring a site that falls far short of expectations, these “travel bibles” are often unworthy of the faith we place in them. Sure, they tell us the best place to eat for under USD 10, or the most reputable antique shops, and they are even (mostly) factual in terms of general information related to an attraction. (Need to know the price? It’s listed, even the children and senior discounts. Operating hours? Check. Occasional snarky commentary? Most definitely.) But the content of a historic site is often poorly reflected in the wording of these catchall guidebooks, especially when compared to the similar books put out annually by English Heritage and National Trust.

Take, for example, Whitby Abbey. It is worthy of perhaps four sentences in most Great Britain guidebooks, and even then these focus mostly on its association with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. English Heritage (the owner/operator) dedicates two pages of its annual handbook to it, placing the Abbey in historical context and perhaps more importantly, highlighting some of the actual components of the site. Visitors take away from the English Heritage handbook a real sense of what they will experience, and they are thus able to make a more informed decision of how to spend their time. (Admittedly, there are occasions when less is more. Take, for example, Keswick Museum and Art Gallery. Meriting a mere two sentences, it mentions all of the highlights: the 664-year-old cat and the musical stones.)

And sometimes, even a handbook like National Trust’s gets it wrong. Both Lonely Planet and National Trust extol the virtues of the Treasurer’s House in York, with its fine furniture and period rooms. I was so excited for a journey through two thousand years of history. So imagine my surprise when almost everything dates from the 17th and 18th century, and I saw very little in terms of exquisite furniture and none in terms of paintings. I came away with no greater insight regarding the “periods” the rooms were supposed to portray. In truth, if I had had to pay admission (members of the National Trust do not), I would be a very unhappy visitor.

So when planning your next trip, do not let these guidebooks dictate your travels. I suggest looking to blogs for reviews, and a site’s webpage for more specific information. If you must, do your perusing in the bookstore and then leave it be, and use the extra weight allowance on something more important, like a new pair of shoes.

-Katharine Thompson

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Millers of Holgate: A Preservation Tale

It would be easy to initially dismiss the Holgate Windmill Preservation Society as just another group of local do-gooders, trying desperately to hang onto a familiar childhood landmark that has no real importance. As I followed the small hand-lettered signs up the aptly named Windmill Rise, I found myself wondering whether this little hike would be worth it.

My apprehension made what happened next that much more pleasant. I spent the next hour and a half talking to several knowledgeable, dedicated members of the Holgate Windmill Preservation Society. The object of their affection is a windmill, built in 1770 and operational until 1933. A Grade II listed building in England’s historic significance scheme, the windmill’s original design was most notable for its unusual five sails, thought to be more efficient than an even number. Years of 20th-century urban sprawl mean the windmill is now surrounded by neat suburban housing outside York instead of granaries and orchards.

As I talked to society members, though, it became clear that the windmill figures prominently in their sense of place as Holgate residents. Jen Hay related how she and other neighborhood children used to play around the outside of the windmill, and her eyes lit up as she described the windmill becoming a source of community interest again.

“People stop and talk to their neighbors about what we’re doing here, and so many locals are members, so they stop by every month,” Jen explained. She was referring to the society’s rather ingenious membership plan, which offers individual memberships for £5 annually (family plans are a whopping £8). Members get free access to the windmill on monthly open weekends to view restoration progress and free entry to many group fundraising events. Meanwhile, the HWPS gets to claim more than 600 memberships on grant applications, which plays well with committees evaluating community support. No less than eight different organizations have awarded grant funding during the past nine years, so the plan must be working.

Using “preservation” in the group’s title is perhaps a bit misleading, as the core committee of 15 members is ambitiously restoring the windmill to produce flour via both wind and mechanical power. Many working parts, primarily wooden, have been replaced, but several other features, including grinding stones and gears, are original to the structure. When the windmill isn’t running during the week, it will be open on the weekends for public tours, focusing on its industrial heritage and role in the community. As I visited with committee members, they tossed around ideas for permanent interpretive signs on all four levels, as well as interactive displays on the ground floor for those who cannot or choose not to climb the narrow stairs.

After beginning site work five years ago, the committee is aiming for completion in 2012 and production as soon as possible. I left feeling energized about the role communities can play in keeping their own history. Consulting with architectural and historical professionals, the Holgate Windmill Preservation Society has developed reasonable goals, fundraising strategies, and business plans. Their journey hasn’t been without hiccups, nor are their plans perfect, but I’m eager to see how this story plays out.

If you’re intrigued, check out the group’s website at Some information is slightly outdated, but you can look at restoration pictures, read recent newsletters, and learn about upcoming events. Chair Bob Anderton is one of several friendly and knowledgeable committee members who would be happy to provide updates.

An England Field School Retrospective

Our class entered our final week of England Field School on Monday. York looks to have much to offer as far as historical sites are concerned and I am eager to see what the professionals at these sites have to say. So far, I have walked part of the city’s wall—the portion along the Lord Mayor’s Walk and Gillygate. Much of the architecture within the city has me constantly craning my neck as many of the old shops are in old buildings and look to have been converted quite well for modern use. There is new development alongside some of the old and I will pay attention to how the mix of old and new works for York, its tourism industry, and day-to-day living in a living historic city.

As I sit here in our flat on Monksgate listening to the rush of traffic and loud pedestrians, I can’t help but think back on our time at Kiplin Hall and the three weeks of site visits and project days. I have sites that stand out as the most beneficial and interesting. My two favorite sites—ones that made me question my views of how we present history and do conservation—St. Agatha’s Church in Richmond and Hadrian’s Wall. An additional site visit that is fast becoming a favorite was the stained glass conservation presentation with the York Glaziers. Finally, for my own personal interest in vernacular architecture found in rural landscapes, I have eagerly looked out of the window and observed the relationship between building and landscape across the English countryside.
St. Agatha’s was unique in the visible 11th, 14th, and 19th century additions to the building. The beautiful medieval wall illustrations were lovely yet the fact that they had been repainted in places during the 19th century was evident. I feel as though that fact is a good example of just how these features of historic buildings are never static.
Hadrian’s Wall was eye opening for just that reason. Many parts of the wall have been rebuilt and modified, yet it is the evidence of its footprint on the land that has endured. Discussing the wall and its conservation interests with Mike Collins of English Heritage and Eric Wilson of the National Trust was interesting. It was informative, to say the least, on how these two organizations must come together over the common goal of what is good for the 6 miles of Hadrian’s Wall the NT owns and EH oversees.

Throughout our time in North Yorkshire I have seen much of its rural landscape. Visiting the Yorkshire Dales, North Yorkshire Moors, and the Lake District have given me an appreciation of the English countryside and how the buildings are recognized as part of the larger cultural landscape. I feel that America’s perception of historic preservation and landscape conservation has developed separately and only now seems to be coming together. England’s conservation of landscapes and the buildings within has nearly always embraced the value and importance of such a relationship.

This next week in York looks promising. Monday’s visit with Sarah Brown of the York Glaziers has given me a new appreciation for conservation of historic stained glass. The innovative, time consuming, and slightly dangerous parts of stained glass conservation have left me enthralled and appreciative of the fact that I will never look at stained glass the same. This class has been a great way to get a comparative look at conservation in England and the United States. I encourage future students to take part if they can--you'll have a great learning and travelling experience that will stay with you in your graduate and professional life.
--Haley Grant

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Preservation Transparency in Historic Sites

As a preservation professional I am inherently interested in how organizations decide on preservation treatments for historic sites. Yes, I am talking about restoration, rehabilitation, reconstruction, preservation, and I am adding renovation here, since it does happen even though it makes some preservationists queasy. Nonetheless, historic sites rarely engage in describing preservation philosophy or methodology, nor do they interpret their own "preservation histories"- preservation choices organizations have made and how changing preservation methods may have affected the site.

This seems disingenuous to me, since most sites have undergone multiple phases of conservation work in order to gain their current appearance. Historic sites are often eager to describe "historic" changes to the building, but are less inclined to discuss the staff repainting the room to a more "appropriate" color in the 1980s. I think it's time for historic sites to be more transparent about their preservation choices and to incorporate education on preservation into their interpretive plans when appropriate.

Following are sites we visited and observations about their preservation choices, plus questions to consider related to the interpretation of preservation at historic sites.

Alteration/ renovation: Castle Howard

Ever seen Brideshead Revisited? Both the mini series and the movie were filmed in this opulent mansion. It's a hodgepodge of architectural styles built over 100 years- from English Baroque to Palladian to Georgian, all visible in the facade! The owners still live in the house and they decide to update the house as they see fit. They reupholster their antique furniture in bright blue, have murals painted in the style that they think the house's architect would have approved, and allowed a digital wallpaper of dark, Catholic themed murals a la Inquisition to be plastered in a room, even though the family is not and never has been Catholic. I was able to figure out that these alterations were not historic, but would most visitors know to ask? What length should a site go to in order to inform their visitors to what is a modern alteration?
Castle Howard:

Restoration: Treasurer's House

This was the first National Trust property to be donated with it's furnishings, in 1930. The eccentric industrialist, Frank Green, purchased the York property in 1897 and proceeded to "restore" the house into a series of period rooms. This included, for example, creating a Great Hall in the Medieval style without any evidence beyond his own hunch that it once existed. This was not a restoration, but a full-blown renovation by a nouveau riche international businessman with more books on economics than arts and the humanities in his library.

The National Trust is now attempting to restore the house to its 1930 appearance. This is confusing, since this includes restoring Green's "period rooms" which often lack anything truly related to the period that he attempted to convey. So just to be clear, the Trust is restoring a fake restoration, and the effect is disorienting.

I suggest that the Trust take a different approach- rather than focusing on Frank Green, the house could be a near perfect backdrop for telling the story of preservation. From the revival trends of the Victorian Era, to the formation of the National Trust, to mid-20th Century practices, to current conservation techniques, this structure possesses the narrative in its bones.
Treasurer's House:

Treatment Mashup: Whitby Abbey Visitor Center

This is a fascinating case: in Whitby, English Heritage gutted the 17th Century house built next door to the abbey to rehabilitate it into the (very good) visitor center. However, they chose to preserve the facade, including the crumbling pediment. Then, they restored the hard stone garden in front of the visitor center. Huh? So in one small space, we see evidence of rehabilitation, preservation and restoration, but beyond information on the excavation of the stone garden, there was no reflection on their choices or methods. A missed opportunity in visitor education, I feel.
Whitby Abbey,

Public Libraries Abroad

When I walk into the Whitby Library and Customer Service Centre, I am struck by the amount of natural light streaming in from the windows. It's not that the public libraries I frequent back home don't have windows, but they just don't seem as bright as this one. I notice the same thing when I walk into the York Library Learning Center. The fact that they are not just called "public libraries" does not escape my attention either. By calling them libraries and either service or learning centers, yes you reference the books, but also the other services that libraries can offer people. I think this is important as I notice that more and more people are going to libraries to use computers, and not check out books. This was true in the one I worked in that was in a small Georgia town where a lot of people do not have their own computers.

The libraries I go to at home are not new, nor have they recently been redone, so I know that this aesthetic comparison may not be what everyone else notices. However, I do note some small differences in the libraries here that I wish ones in the states would pick up.

The shelves in these libraries are not much higher than eye level. Not only does this make the top shelf easier to reach, but it allows more light to flow through the area. Also, Haley, who I was with in Whitby, likened the shelf labels to those of Blockbuster. Every bay had the genre on it so you could easily see where certain books were located. In the libraries I know, the labels are only on the sides and are sometimes not as clear as I think they should be.

The librarians here place protective covers on every single book that is in the library. Sometime I pick up a book in my local library, and it is so worn that I am afraid the cover is going to come off. These protective covers really help even the books that are most frequently circulated keep their shape.

One of the more striking things to me was the "World Literature" section in the York library. This section is made up of literature in other languages. Arabic, French, German, Russian, and many others are represented here. While I'm sure that certain libraries have this type of section, I have not seen it in those that I frequent. I love the fact that York has all of these books.

I love going to libraries in other places to see what they do differently than to those that I go to on a regular basis. This is the first time that I have been to any in another country. It was great to see the similarities and differences of how things are done at home and abroad.

~Virginia W. Blake

Monday, June 7, 2010

Books Through the Ages

Recently, I was asked how I, as a librarian, felt about e-books and e-readers and the truth is I really like them. I have the Kindle app on my iPhone and my computer. They are great for when I travel as books get heavy fast when they are in your bag. However, when I was working at the library at Kiplin Hall, I realized how much you miss when you read an e-book compared to a printed book.

When I opened these books from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, I could feel the history within them. From the pages and the breaks in the spine you could tell if a book was well read by the family. Also, many of these books had a family bookplate or a signature in them. Some even had inscriptions in them that told you that the book was a gift from one family member to another. The history in these books are amazing and it makes me want to go home and write my name in all of my books so later on people will know who they belonged to.

I truly realized what was missing when one afternoon after I returned to my room after cataloging these books all day and pulled out my iPhone to read a chapter of a book. There is something about the feel of the cover in your hand that makes you know that a book is real. And I admit that I feel more satisfied that I'm making progress in a book by physically turning a page rather than tapping the screen on my cell phone. I don't know if I could ever read Austen or Bronte on a Kindle, I think it would just feel wrong to read a classic on an electronic device, but I will enjoy it for more recent books.
~Virginia W. Blake

Animals Abroad, Part II: Dead or Alive, Animals in a Museum's Collection

Of course, animals are not always relegated to the exterior of sites.

Taxidermy has quite a presence in museums, although it is incorporated in different ways. Ranging from the traditional to the novel, these objects are hard to miss, and often easier to identify with than fine porcelain or silver.

Traditionally, these objects are used in an educational mannor, providing visitors with an example of an animal they may never have seen before (or at least not up close).

Various breeds of birds, Keswick Museum and Art Gallery

They are also used in addition to other objects as a way of bringing to life a former time period.

Hanging ducks adding authenticity to a Georgian pantry, Beamish Open Air Museum
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bush

Stuffed terrior dog, from a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, Beamish Open Air Museum
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bush

Taxidermy is also used in more novel ways. The Keswick Museum of Fine Art’s main visitor attraction is an (approximately) 644 year old cat.

Whether this cat, found in a church roof, can be considered taxidermy is open to interpretation. Keswick Museum and Art Gallery

Sometimes, being allowed to interact with objects that would normally be off limits delights visitors as well.

Badger, Fox and Me. (Sign says "Touch Gently") Keswick Museum and Art Gallery


Living animals are sometimes considered part of a museum’s collection. Harewood House boasts a unique collection of tropical birds, supplemented by the ever-popular penguins.

Gray Peacock Pheasant, Harewood House

Photo courtesy of Sarah Swinney

Hornbill, Harewood House

Photo courtesy of Sarah Swinney

Visitors feeding the penguins, Harewood House

Photo courtesy of Sarah Swinney

No matter their form, animals add texture to historic sites and museums. In life they add movement, in death they provide another dimension to a collection so often full of furniture and paintings. I also believe that most visitors find animals easier to understand, as they are not foreign in the way that antiques sometimes feel. Animals, no matter how wild their origins, could have been someone's pet, someone's companion. For many people, forging a connection to something that was, or still is, alive, seems more straightforward.

And of course, they can be much more entertaining to photograph.

-Katharine Thompson

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Art of (Community) Engagement

“Community engagement” has taken hold as one of those 21st-century phrases that seems almost inherently “feel-good.” What well-meaning corporation or non-profit offering public services wouldn’t want to engage its community, strengthening local ties in a competitive global marketplace? Of course, many heritage organizations have been working at this for years out of necessity; repeat visitors and volunteers often provide money and manpower to keep the doors open. Still, fresh ideas are key in an increasingly crowded market, and a couple of the sites we’ve visited stand out to me for their local initiatives.

Many museums and historic sites utilize volunteers in their day-to-day operations, from running the gift shop to serving as guides throughout the property. Fewer institutions involve their volunteers in research, but the Bowes Museum in little Barnard Castle has put community involvement at the forefront of its new program, “Archaeology and the Arts.” Designed to spotlight the Bowes’ archaeological collection, which has not been on display for many years in the fine art museum, the program is relying on about a dozen volunteers to undertake the collection’s first detailed audit. When not supervising these efforts, newly-hired community curator Samantha Belcher travels to schools and community events to promote use of the collection, often taking objects for all-ages activities. The goal is to re-introduce the public to a long-forgotten and very different portion of the Bowes, not through passive observation in an exhibition, but through physical interaction with the objects themselves. Compared to the necessary “look, don’t touch” provisions of most art and history museums, it’s apparent why target goals for participation have been exceeded in the program’s first five months. Combined with the popular interactive conservation activities in the ground-floor galleries public interest in the art of conservation seems to be alive and well at the Bowes.

The Beamish Museum is also bringing the community into its storage facility, but for a different reason. On a few top shelves, large boxes known as “heritage cubes” house the collections of several different groups, including police associations and social clubs. Designed to help smaller local organizations which are planning to open their own museums, the cubes are awarded through a competitive process. There are only two significant caveats. One, the storage is strictly short-term only and subject to an annual review; and two, each group must put on a small exhibit each year. This is “living history” of a different sort for the museum, but the program still fulfills founder Frank Atkinson’s mission of preserving the culture of northeast England, albeit more indirectly.

As I applaud these efforts, I still find myself considering the end result of these interactions. What long-term benefits do volunteers reap when they help catalog a collection? Is it historical knowledge learned, or information about the process itself? Or maybe that warm and fuzzy feeling that “I’ve helped with something important and done a good thing” is enough. Similarly, how do heritage cubes help their users think outside the box (pun intended)? Do conversations with professionals and small trial exhibits help small groups create quality museums, or do they just produce more questions than answers. In both cases, it seems like some sort of museums resource center might be nice – something that offers information and connections after the end date of a project. After all, engaging your community is one thing, but after they’ve been hooked, you have to know what to do with them. Encouraging connections that last a lifetime and pass through generations: that’s true “community engagement.”

Animals Abroad, Part I: Why I have more pictures of sheep than castles

Tourists come to England to see the ruins. They come to see castles, abbeys, and Hadrian’s Wall. But the picturesque landscape holds another secret, one that delights visitors and sometimes warrants more photographs than the stone ruins.

Lamb at Kiplin Hall

What is it about sheep that draws the camera lens? Is it their cotton-ball-on-sticks appearance? Or is it their (mostly) nonchalant attitude towards the public?

And why is it that we so often come home from vacations with pictures of these:

Horses near Leeds
(photo courtesy of Sarah Swinney)

and these:

Cows and calves at Hadrian's Wall

and these:

Mama and lambs running away, Hadrian's Wall

...when we can see them at home…without the cost of a plane ticket or rental car?

And remember that while cows and sheep are the most commonly sighted animals around ruins, they are by no means the only. Many historic sites keep chalkboards for visitors to record the animals they’ve seen on that day, with birds, deer, and rabbits among the most popular. Even locals seem to enjoy recording these sightings, so I can’t believe this animal obsession resides solely in the minds of foreign visitors.

It is even more fascinating considering these animals, especially the sheep and cows, are not a ploy to attract visitors, but rather the representation of someone’s livelihood, which is more often than not impeded by our visitation to sites like Castlerigg and Hadrian’s Wall. The owners of these lands did not ask for a historic site in the middle of their grazing pasture.

But it does make for a great picture.

Sheep grazing at Castlerigg (ancient monument in the foreground)

-Katharine Thompson

The Miraculous Age-Inducing Wrinkle Cream

There is a lot of history packed into this island of a country, and in many places the physical remnants of the past are remarkably intact. Many of the inhabitants are nevertheless busy making new things look old. I haven't yet decided if this is surprising (why gild the lily?) or perfectly natural (because the historical styles are ingrained enough to be timeless).  

 Our class encountered this practice most directly in our tour of Richmond, a market town about seven miles west of Kiplin Hall. Richmond suffered great economic losses in the foot and mouth epidemic of 2002, and in the past few years has been seeking revitalization in part through heritage tourism. The town is deliberately cultivating a Georgian style, replacing modern shopfronts with more "sympathetic" facades (ironically often Victorian rather than actually Georgian) and painting them "acceptable" colors.  

 This quaint cobbled Richmond street was paved with asphalt until a few years ago. The less-romantic material is still visible at the end of the road.

 At other sites, that valuable antique look has been cultivated by removing newer elements (which are sometimes historic in their own right). The uniform medieval-ness of Rievaulx Abbey is brought to you by the Ministry of Works, a now-defunct governmental organization which oversaw historic sites in the mid-twentieth century. In order to emphasize the medieval character of the site, the Ministry removed a Georgian farmhouse built on the land (only) a few hundred years ago.

 We have seen a lot of this "earlying-up" of both new and old buildings (and sometimes other objects). Why were most of the items in the first antique shop I visited younger than I am? Why, in the twentieth century, did Kiplin Hall rebuild a nineteenth-century folly in a fourteenth-century style?  And while this phenomenon certainly isn't unique to England, how much does the location influence it? I'm still mulling over these things, and I welcome your comments.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Romancing the Stone Circle

Many of us fantasize about the historic and famed places we want to go. Ideals get buried in our heads and are hard to budge. Idealizing historic sites can lead to disappointment if reality is ignored. Large tourist crowds and bad interpretations can often hinder the enjoyment of an historic site. More importantly, it can limit what is ultimately taken from the visit. My recent visit to Castlerigg Stone Circle, located in the quaint Lake District town of Keswick, sparked this realization. At this visit, the crowds of tourist littered about the stone circle immediately extinguished my previous delusions of a primal stone setting in the wastes of the Lake District.

I have long imagined prehistoric sites as surrounded by myth and lore and as otherworldly portals to a vague long ago time. In my love of things prehistoric, like the Castlerigg stone circle, my appreciation of their history was left by the wayside as my imagination sped on.
I admit that I am an avid romantic when it comes to historic sites, especially prehistoric ones. I want an almost passion-like historical conversion experience—and all sites should deliver thusly. I hope to one day look at a historic site and see a glimmer of a past I will never truly understand, envision, or experience—except through paltry conjecture. I yearn to see the true glory of a site not marred by tourists with fanny packs, hiking sandals worn over socks, and rude children running wildly over a nation’s treasure.

I need to stand in the face of history—raw, naked history.
And that is hard to do when you are surrounded by the ugly and uncompromising truth of historic sites as tourist destinations. The general public (i.e. non history minded members of the public) often do not share my visions and expectations. Nor are they mindful of the true sacredness of the spot upon which they have discarded their Mars Bar wrapper. They obstruct the best camera views, they chase the darling lambs around the field, and they tarnish the historic landscape with soda bottles and completely unhistorical potato chip bags.

Why are they there? Who knows—maybe they do appreciate history just a bit and want the same things I do. You absolutely do not need to be an academic to enjoy history and all its marvels. These destinations are popular for a reason—good ones, I’m sure. I wonder at these people’s expectations and wonder if they are hoping for a magical historical experience as well. Then I apologize for obstructing the nice Welsh man’s photograph.
-Haley Grant, Tourist

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Better Living through Chemistry

What better way to marry the enthusiasm of the impending World Cup with brash commercialism (and maybe start an international food fight) than to dream up irresistible / disgusting snacks?

Thankfully, (and just in time for the June 11 kick off), Walkers has engineered an entire line of potato chips (crisps) to get your taste buds hopping. The Walkers Flavour Cup introduces 15 national food themed chips from Italian Spaghetti Bolognese to Japanese Teriyaki Chicken. There’s something for everyone: two chicken dishes, several beef flavors, and a couple of vegetarian options.

Just imagine the marketing team meeting where Walkers’ executives debated what the national food was for each country. And when, exactly, in the product development cycle do you think they brought in the chemists or food scientists or whoever was responsible for turning the bland potato into a party in your mouth? Who was the brave soul who piped up and asked, “What exactly does Australian BBQ Kangaroo taste like?”

To celebrate our last night at Kiplin, I hosted an international crisp blind taste test. The crisps were placed out in individual bowls. Everyone very thoughtfully had to try to match the taste with the list of flavors, plus voted for their favorite and least favorite.

“The more I eat, the harder this becomes. The flavor is just chemical-ly,” moaned Anjuli.

“It’s awful to have to redo the ones you really don’t like,” grimaced Katharine.

“Mmm. Underneath it all, they all taste like potato chips.”

Congratulations to Haley and Lynn, who correctly identified the most (7) crisps in the blind taste test. German Bratwurst Sausage won as the most distinctive, with 80% of taste-testers correctly identifying it. Argentinean Flame Grilled Steak was the fans’ favorite, while poor American Cheeseburger was voted least palatable.

I have now placed all the remaining chips in one giant bowl. Who knows what flavor you will draw.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Newcastle Day Trip

Someone from Liverpool told me that Newcastle "is the second best city in the country," and after reading about a museum dedicated to children's literature and the rejuvenated downtown, I decided that it was well worth the 45 minute train trip to the north. There I discovered a museum that merged imagination and play with the difficult realities of history and innovative ways to insert art into the greater community.

Once I arrived I found my way to the Ousburn Valley, a hip, canal-enlaced neighborhood a mile or so from the train station. I walked along the Tyne and admired the iconic bridges that span the river and the graffiti art as I made my way to Seven Stories (, the only museum in Britain dedicated to children's books. The, yes, seven floor museum is filled with reading nooks, colorfully crafted storyteller thrones, and exhibits showcasing the original manuscripts and illustrations of the collections.

The museum merged play and literature with an exploration of historic/ contemporary topics of concern. This was particularly highlighted in a moving exhibit on the life and work of beloved children's author, Judith Kerr. It showed the parallels between Kerr's life and her books, including her family's move from Germany before the outbreak of WWII and her experience as a refugee as reflected in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Amazingly, during the family's many moves Judith's mother kept her young daughter's drawings, many of which are displayed in the exhibit. The most powerful element for me was the video showing the reactions of children who learned about young Judith the refugee, including conversations on what they would bring if they had to leave and could only carry one treasured item.

After Seven Stories I walked to the Biscuit Factory, a rehabilitated cookie manufacturing plant that houses an expansive gallery dedicated to displaying the works of Northeast artists. I did not purchase any art, but if I were a British citizen I would have due to the spectacular Own Art Scheme ( This program aims to "make it easy and affordable for everyone to buy contemporary works of art." The Arts Council of England provides up to 2000 pounds of interest-free credit to purchase art, and the borrower pays the council in 10 monthly installments. Fantastic! What a simple way to empower those without large bank accounts to own art and support the local arts community and economy! I can imagine the myriad benefits of a program like this back in Columbia or Portland.

Leaving the Biscuit Factory I looped back downtown and walked through the city's Georgian core, where I encountered another effective tactic for exposing the community to art. Empty store fronts were converted into temporary art exhibits. One displayed the work of a glass artist, the other of a metal sculptor. Instead of being a visible sign of the slumping economy or symptomatic of a declining urban core, the potentially derelict spaces are being used to give publicity to artists and exposing art to those walking by.

Finally, a pint of Ginger Beer in the pub rounded off a lovely day trip to Newcastle. And while I haven't been to enough English cities to classify it as "the second best," its attempts at bringing art to the larger community and the city's stellar museums surely boost it towards the top of the list.