Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Conclusion of Emily in London Summer 09!

This concludes my blog of my recollections of my study abroad program in Summer 2009. Overall, I found it to be a very educational and eye-opening experience. One thing I think is interesting is that people think that because England uses the same language as the United States that it is very similar, and it is not. There are many, many differences. And also just because NYC is also a world capital does not make it similar. We do not find it acceptable in New York for the bars to close at 11. There are a million other details which are different enough to cause a person to feel disoriented. There were obviously things that were fabulous, beautiful, and amazing. But traveling can be tiring, and thriving in a different country, even one with the same language, is not that easy. It takes perseverance and problem solving skills. It takes trusting oneself and figuring out things on your own. It takes confidence in jumping in there and figuring it out, even if you've never been on that subway system before, and people are driving on the wrong side of the road, and they actually think mayonnaise goes with pizza. It is character building to spend a month in another country, and is not something easily done for people weak in spirit and mind. A million little details can be so disorienting, that even though I felt relatively comfortable and happy by the last week there, I actually had the impulse to hug the customs agent at JFK when he said "Welcome back!"

There are many things I did not like about NYC and the US in general before I left, but being gone for a month, those things felt like my problems. Our conflicts as a nation, our failures as a city, feel like part of my life - and so in some way it was comforting to see those again too. The Mets are losing, but they represent my city, a city which has for better or worse made me into the grown up I am. So they are not winning, it does not matter. So its dirty, and loud in NYC, and people in the US can be obnoxious - I love it all, and I love being home like I never did before. You can never appreciate a place until you leave it, and then come back and take a second look.

Many people thought I would adjust easily to London after having lived in NYC for the last 4 years. They are really not the same. I really feel that NYC is more democratic, or at least feels that way. Its a little rougher. We don't videotape everything everywhere. We don't have a queen. There are many comparisons to be made, and many counterparts (Bloomingdale's - Harrod's, Central Park - Hyde Park?, British Museum - Metropolitan Museum of Art). But somehow the people seem very different. Not to mention the food being better and cheaper. I think NY is more democratic in the way that you can get by for cheap here and still have great food and a good neighborhood to live in. The social structure in London seems to want to punish you for not being well off. The only food you can afford if you are not well off is terrible, and what kind of city does that end up feeling like? A harsh one, an unforgiving one, an elitist slightly fascist one. Yes, in some way it felt very homey and like something that had influenced the start of our country... In another way I thought if I lived there I too might be fascinated by Australia and California the way may Londoners seemed to be. Weather is bad. Food is bad. People are rude. Cars run you over on the street (cars in NY stop for pedestrians generally in my experience). Yet they all seem to think very highly of themselves for living there. I swear New Yorkers don't act like that. Perhaps its different living in a place and visiting. Perhaps it was spending time in Ireland which gave me a different viewpoint. But for all the beautiful cultural and historical riches, for all the ways many things from London influenced our own national identity in many ways, and for as important and enriching those things are to learn about, I can't imagine wanting to spend a vast amount of time there.

Overall, to me London lacked the soul NYC has. So elitist, so expensive, so unforgiving - and then four seasons in one day everyday. I would really love to go back to Edinburgh or Dublin. People there were so nice, and the cities were so charming. But London? A couple people actually referred to us as a colony. They looked offended when they realized I was American. For as educational and important as visiting there was, there might be some piece of its alleged charm I missed out on.

I know, however, that I will think back on this experience as important in my life and in my career working in libraries and museums.

National Museum of Ireland

(Image courtesy of BBC)
I also visited the National Museum of Ireland. They had a very interesting exhibit called "Kingship and Sacrifice". In Ireland they have bogs, which are like swamps but very dense. A person can fall into the bog, or many times be placed in the bog as part of a murder. The bog preserves everything including clothing and skin. The only difference is that it dies everything brown, and skin acquires a leathery texture. The exhibit had hats and shoes from the Middle Ages which looked brand new (only brown). Families take bricks of turf from the bog to be burned and made into fuel. Sometimes when people take bricks out of the bog discoveries of things buried in the bog take place. Some remains have been found from between 200 and 400 BC, and are in remarkably good condition. The man pictured above was believed to have been of a higher social station because his hair gel was from the South of France. The exhibit includes a number of references to human sacrifice. I found it to be very interesting, but also tragic. I worried a little about showing the proper amount of respect for the individuals' bodies. Sure, they had died thousands of years before, but they weren't like mummies, you could still see their facial expressions. They look very real and lifelike, and that made it feel complicated to view them in their position they were in when they died or were murdered.

National Library of Ireland

I visited the National Library of Ireland. They had a very interesting exhibit on Irish emigrants to the European continent between 1600-1800. The exhibit covered many different kinds of people from students, to soldiers and clergy. It told this story through letters, paintings, maps, and objects. One thing I really enjoyed about this exhibit was a very large device which looked like a kindle. The library staff had digitized many letters written by emigrants, and visitors to the exhibit could search by keyword, place, date, or name. They could find all the letters by emigrants which mentioned a certain town, and get a composite view based on the many different experiences. I liked that the exhibit stated that migration is a permanent part of the human experience, and tried to draw connections between emigrants in the 1600s with other times in history. The experience of starting on the outside of a culture, and becoming part of that culture, and even changing it in the process is a very universal process. I thought the exhibit did a very effective job at explaining this. I enjoyed the paintings and letters, and thought they brought a personal touch to such a broad and general topic.

Imperial War Museum

I visited the Imperial War Museum. I am interested in history, and I found this to be a great museum. It had exhibits on WWI, WWII, and conflicts since 1945. It had a really great exhibit on the lives of children during WWII. The exhibit conveyed information about their lives through toys, letters, photographs, paintings, sound recordings, every day objects, and newspaper clippings. They had on display original documents like rationing cards. To me, it was very heart-breaking. One child had been in possession of a gas mask case that was made to look like a teddy bear. The exhibit also had original posters which communicated advice to the public from the government during that time. Then, we walked through an area that was made to look like a house during the time period complete with something that looked like a cage, which was actually an indoor bomb shelter.

Then we went to an area called the Blitz experience. Here, the museum staff had designed an experience that simulated us getting bombed during WWII. London was bombed 57 consecutive nights between 1940 and 1941. Then, we exited into an area which was supposed to feel like a neighborhood in London which had been bombed. It was very eerie and very interesting. I very much enjoy when historical museums can help patrons to imagine what real people during that time perriod had gone through, and the Imperial War Museum was highly successful at this attempt.

National Archives of Scotland

We visited the National Archives of Scotland . The archive houses Scotland's records and attempts to make them accessible to visitors. The archive runs many different websites. The staff really seems to make efforts to get people into the archive, such as informing people as to how they can get started in doing genealogy research. We were shown a variety of materials which all varied in purpose and content. For example, a book about the sales of pieces of land in a certain county could help someone doing research on a specific person in that it proves that person was in a specific place at a specific time. The archive also has materials relating to politics, including memos and letters which could help those doing research on that topic. The archive also offers classes to help individuals to be able to read old and messy handwriting. They also have many documents which are digitized so that the original can be preserved and the patron can still gain access to the content. I found the variety of materials very interesting, all which could be useful to many different people doing many different types of research.

Central Library, Edinburgh

We visited the Central Library, Edinburgh which is the main branch of their public library. It was built by Andrew Carnegie, and the inscription above the door "Let there be light" is characteristic of his view of the role of libraries in educating the middle and working classes. The main reading room I found to be very impressive in having ample space for patrons to work, study, and read for pleasure. I enjoyed the large dome and high ceilings, as I believe sometimes that a well-designed study space can help one to clarify one's ideas better. The library had many books in storage like extra copies and volumes that do not get used that often. For a while these volumes were only stored in alphabetical order, but recently the staff has been entering the excess volumes into the catalog slowly and steadily. The children's and music libraries seemed to fit the needs of the patrons very well. We do not often see a separate music library in the United States, and it seemed a very positive thing for the cultural health of the community.

Then, we learned from the staff about encouraging reading in the community and outreach to groups who may not be aware of the joys of reading. One thing I took from this discussion was that it is important not to be judgmental of readers. It is important for patrons to see reading as fun and good for their personal development, and not feel embarrassed or discouraged. The staff of the Central Library, Edinburgh I found to be the nicest to us of all our tour guides, even offering us tea and free tote bags. Their kindness added to my general favorable impression of the city, and made me think that I would enjoy visiting there again.

National Library of Scotland

We visited the National Library of Scotland. It is Scotland's largest library. The library focuses on Scottish history, culture, and knowledge. The library has 14 million printed items in its collection. It is a depository library in that the library holds a copy of everything published in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. Other depository libraries include the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the Cambridge University Library, the library at Trinity College in Dublin, and the National Library of Wales.

The library also had a very interesting exhibit on Scottish emigrants. It seemed very innovative the way they conveyed information. The exhibit contained letters, photos, voice recordings, props, facsimiles of letters and materials that visitors could pick up and handle, and computer stations at the end where visitors could search for their own family histories. I liked a quote by actor Alan Cumming where he said "the older I get and the more I look at Scotland from afar, I realize how much being Scottish defines me as an artist and as a human being, and how I feel more connected to it." Many Scottish people returned to their own country at some later date after leaving, while others created Scottish cultural societies in their new countries. It is very interesting for me to see the way that outsiders can become insiders, and how immigrants try to strike a balance between assimilation and preserving their own cultural heritage.