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.

Bodleian Library, Oxford

We visited the Bodleian Library at Oxford which took us about an hour to get to from London. It is a depository library, and so includes materials on pretty much every possible subject in every possible language. Many of the buildings are very beautiful and have been in continual use since the Middle Ages. The Old Bodleian is the oldest section of the library. Scholars can come and use the very old books on site, but they cannot take them with them. It first opened for use in 1602. It incorporates an older library donated by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Oxford had financial problems, and some of his donations were sold while some were unfortunately burned by reformers. Sir Thomas Bodley rescued the library during these turbulent times. He married a very wealthy widow, was able to purchase a large amount of books for the library, and fund the creation of the first catalog for the library in 1605.

The library continued to grow, and is now very modern and extensive including a vast collection of e-resources. Many visitors like to view the beautiful buildings and many scholars need to use the resources at the library, and they come from all over the world.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum is a major museum which focuses on art and design. The museum, through its collections, gives insights into many different periods in history. The more religious time periods feature religious imagery in the decorative arts and more contemporary pieces reflect modern movements such as art deco and arts and crafts. The National Art Library is a major public reference library. It houses materials relating to decorative arts spanning many time periods and countries. It also includes information on the art, design, and craft of the book. The library includes information about specific artists and also periodicals covering current trends in design. The library also has a selection of artists' books that is searchable on their website. The library also houses a selection of original manuscripts of some works of Charles Dickens. His novels are not related to decorative arts, but the materials were a gift to the library.

I found the museum very beautiful. I especially liked the Chihuly sculpture at the entrance.

Monday, 10 August 2009

British Museum

The British Museum is the London equivalent of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in that it covers many different genres and time periods. The collection ranges from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present, and everything in between including galleries arranged by themes like "Living and Dying" and "The Enlightenment". The museum also includes a central reading room to be used by scholars and researchers. Families and individuals who visit the museum can also visit the Paul Hamlyn Library. This library exists to augment the experience of visiting the museum with more information. It includes books on art, art history, the history of museums, and books about cultural history. It also includes biographies on specific artists. It also houses a selection of periodicals covering current trends in the art world such as some countries wanting their national treasures back from foreign museums, and the art world being affected by possible wars between countries. This library also allows users to use the internet for research purposes and searching their online catalog. The library seemed to be a good way for families to take a break as they browse the extensive museum, and also for adults to research issues that may interest them based on what they saw in the exhibits.

Greenwich National Maritime Museum Library

We visited the National Maritime Museum Library. Compared to the Shakespeare Library, it seemed much more well funded. They seemed to have much more of a professionally trained full-time staff, and took student interns or volunteers only when they needed them instead of relying on them as a regular part of the work flow. The library collects materials relating to naval history and the history of science (including astronomy and navigation). I found the signal book to be very interesting which had weights in the binding so that it would sink if the ship sunk. I also really liked the illustrated journals they had made by sailors during their travels. The library had very old wooden shelves which looked nice, but seemed hard to manage a collection. The library does not allow people to take materials out of the library, rather they have to come to the library (usually telling the staff what they would like to consult before they get there), and the staff will bring them the materials to consult while they are there. The patron can also only use pencil while they are in the library. The library also has many e-resources, but these can only be access inside the library. This seemed to be related to the librarians having worries about copyright infringement. I found their collection to be highly interesting and their staff to be incredibly informed and professional.

Shakespeare Library

We visited the Shakespeare Library in Stratford-upon-Avon, which was of course Shakespeare's birthplace. This library has materials surrounding the town of Stratford, Shakespeare's plays and poems, an the Royal Shakespeare Company. The library is not funded by the government, and is actually a charity. They receive money from donations and also from revenue created from the Shakespeare's birthplace which charges for admission. I found it a little curious that Shakespeare is considered by many to be the best writer ever in the English language, and yet the library seemed to be struggling for funding. It seemed there were a lot of projects they wanted to do and couldn't do because of lack of funding. They also relied a lot on volunteers. I find the question of volunteers interesting because they can really help a library, but are many times not professionally trained. Also, because they have no real motivating factor besides wanting to be there, there is no real way to improve their quality of work because its not like they can be fired or punished because they are giving their time like a gift instead of fulfilling a contract lie with paid employment. Obviously, many libraries rely on volunteers and they can really help, but it seems it should be more of an augmentation to trained professionals rather than seriously relied on to keep the library running.

It seemed an interesting relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It seemed they gave the library many materials to house, but I was unclear as to whether the Royal Shakespeare Company helped in the funding. And if the library acts as an archive for the organization, shouldn't they help them out especially if they are struggling? I found it curious.

It was a very valuable library with many important early works relating to Shakespeare and the town of Stratford. I was just feeling a little bad for their funding situation.

British Library

The British Library was my favorite part of the entire trip. It is a depository library, which means that everything that gets published in the United Kingdom gets deposited here. Therefore, it has a vast amount of books on a vast amount of subjects in all languages. The reading rooms do not actually contain books. Rather, the patrons register as a reader, go to a reading room, and then find the books they need in the catalog. When they find the materials they require, they order them and the person working downstairs (the library goes underground many floors) takes the printout of the order and goes to retrieve the materials. There is a special type of device similar to a conveyor belt that runs all around the library. The person puts the materials (rare and old materials are not handled in this way) onto the device and tells the machine which reading room to take the book to. The patron can then work at their station but they cannot take materials home. Sometimes people come in to the library believing it to be a lending library and become disappointed. It is not similar to a public library even if anyone can become a reader. It is more similar to the main research library on 42nd street in NYC.

They also had a gallery of important manuscripts. This really affected me. There are works of literature by British authors which really affected my life and how I think about things. I went into the gallery and all of these books were all in a row in the form of original manuscripts. They had Virginia Woolf's journals which gave her the idea for Mrs. Dalloway, Jane Austen's Persuasion, Sylvia Plath's poetry, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and also a Shakespeare first folio and orginal Beatles lyrics. They also had Jane Austen's writing desk. To me, I have always had this very strong connection with Virginia Woolf. I have always felt that if she met me she would totally understand me and how I think. I have felt like she is like my long lost best friend in history. To view her journals, paper that she actually touched and wrote on, made me remember everything about her writing that really affected me, and it was a very moving experience. It was similar to when I tried to find where she lived. She lived in Bloomsbury and a hotel has been built where her house was. Still I remembered her mentioning Tavistock Square in her journal when she came up with the idea for To the Lighthouse, and so to be somewhere where she had walked, thought, and lived really affected me in a deep way.

The British Library also had on display the Magna Carta and many religious documents. They also had screens where one could digitally turn the pages of very old books, zoom in, view text versions, and rotate images. All in all it was a very enriching experience for me.

We also toured the conservation studio. They taught us about the processes that are involved in repairing and preserving old and valuable works. They first estimate how many hours a project will take, and discuss with the curators what is worth doing based on the estimate. If something is not that important and will occupy a whole team for a year, they may not decide to start the project. Since conservation can also be very mundane it is important for them to mix up activities for the employees so their spirits do not get crushed. They seemed to be very professional and competent, and it made me wonder in the future about possibly taking some kind of professional workshop or continuing education class to learn about practices and concepts of conservation.

The building of the British Library was designed to have many features similar to that of a ship. It was controversial when it was built, but I really rather enjoyed it. There was also a huge column in the center filled with books originally donated by George the 3rd. He really wanted his collection to stay in one piece and they are mostly housed together. If a patron requests one of these books, a librarian goes inside the column to retrieve it. Our guide said the column is fireproof and if the librarian was inside during a fire he or she would have to exit through the roof. That does sound rather dangerous.

I found this visit to be highly informative and incredibly interesting.

Museum of London

The Museum of London tells many sides to the story of the city of London. It includes information and objects on prehistoric London, Roman rule, medieval London, and even modern aspects like an exhibit on apartheid in South Africa. The curator of the prehistoric exhibit spoke with us. He explained that the existence of the city is directly related to the River Thames. He also spoke about how humans in prehistoric times were smarter and more innovative than many modern people give them credit for. He explained how museums are good at showing objects, but not as good at telling a story. He said in this exhibit he tried to tell a narrative, and get visitors to think of the prehistoric people as actual individuals. In this way, he included poems, sounds, photographs of the terrain, and also objects relating to their lives. One ceramic pot actually had the finger prints where the creator had pressed their fingertips in for sculptural effect. Seeing that object helped me to think of the prehistoric Londoners as individual humans. In furthering his theme of the river being integral to the existence of the city, he tried to remind visitors of the river throughout the exhibit. In this way many panels were curved, there were blue lights, and sounds reminding the visitor of the river. I had previously visited the National Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio which covers the Underground Railroad during slavery. This museum was also created with one of its intentions being to remind the visitors of importance of the river (the Ohio River being the boundary between free states and slave states), and the buildings of this museum were curvy like the flow of the river, including the interior and staircases. The design of this exhibit to me was similar and really made me think about how water ways can really influence human history.

Listening to the curator made me feel more aware of the way information is selected and conveyed. He wanted to tell a narrative that would influence the way the visitor experienced the content of the exhibit. I think he was very successful in accomplishing his goals with the combination of methods that he used. I found him to be very thoughtful. I liked that he tried to imagine the way that the exhibit would be experienced from a visitor point of view. I thought those efforts could be felt as I wandered through the prehistoric London exhibit.