The British Museum

It’s the first national museum in the world and it’s still one of the biggest–a structure built to house historical artefacts for the edification of “curious and studious persons,” belonging neither to King nor Church.

The British Museum

The British Museum

Admission has always been free, from the moment  it opened in its original location at Montague House in 1753.

Montagu House

Back then the collection mainly contained objects that belonged to physician Sir Hans Sloane, but it got so popular that by the 1820s not only did  the collection outgrow the building, but everyone already knew where the restrooms were. This was not acceptable. To rectify this problem, construction for the current site began and thanks to architect Sir Robert Smirke, the tradition of tourists wandering around yet another wing of sculptures, desperate for the bathroom, continues.

Admission Ticket from 1790

Admission Ticket from 1790

Today, it is lauded as a “museum of the world,” housing things of historical importance from many different parts of the globe that the (mostly) British had “collected” from their “travels,” miniatures of which could be bought for a tidy sum at the gift shop.

I got a Rosetta Stone bookmark.

I got a Rosetta Stone bookmark.

It’s an uncomfortable testament to British Imperialism. The way that many parts of the collection were procured (like, say, the Elgin Marbles) is considered controversial. There’s no doubt the pieces are well cared for and treated with respect, and maybe the fact that they’re in the museum is the reason many of these things still exist in their preserved state.  If they’re not here, how will people learn about the cultures their country once exploited? On the other hand, if a person from one of those countries (say, Egypt) wanted to see a piece of their heritage kept in the museum, how difficult would it be for him to get a visa and plane ticket to Britain?

It’s a conundrum. If someone took the roof of your shack, will it be better to let that person take your furniture to their mansion as well and save it from rain damage, or will you keep your stuff and sleep on a bed that will become wet, mouldy and of no use to anyone, including you?

And no, you can not live in the mansion until you can afford to rebuild, whether or not you give up custody of your furniture. However, you are welcome to visit the mansion to see your furniture any time. Everyone is welcome, but good luck getting past the butler with those sodden clothes. Why don’t you sort yourself out, you loser?

british museum ivory sculpture

And, while you’re at it, can you help us find the bathroom?

References:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/

http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/museums_and_history.html

http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/heritage/250-years-the-british-museum

http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/heritage/museum-history

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Museum

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Hampton Court

I thought I’d go all techno savvy and start my research for Hampton Court by checking out what people say about it on Twitter. I was expecting to read things like, “Spending the day with the kids at Hampton Court. Henry VIII was fat.” or “Chills down my spine at Hampton Court’s Haunted Gallery. Hang in there, @CatherineHoward! #beheading”

Those comments wouldn’t have any info I didn’t know already, but it would have given me an insight to what people thought of the place. Instead, I get hit with tweets like these:

“Hampton Court! HoooOOooOOooo!”

and

“I spent a cute day at Hampton Court!”

I was looking for information and I got it: these guys and I should NEVER hang out. I had no idea what they were talking about! I imagine the first tweet is some kind of code that is not worth breaking, and what is a cute day? Was the sun wearing shades? Were there puppies and kittens running around the palace? Was it fluffy?

Cute.

Cute.

The palace is most associated with Henry VIII of England, who visited the place when his right-hand man Cardinal Wolsey owned it and in true Henry VIII style, he figured he’d have it for himself. This guy was not kidding around. Just ask his wives. Well, those who still had their heads attached to their necks.  No alimony for the Larry King of Renaissance England. He’d have fit right in today’s dog-eat-dog world.

He'd have EVERYTHING for himself, because screw you.

I’ll have EVERYTHING I want, because screw you. I’m fluffy.

This wife-murdering king wanted sons to continue his line and silence the Plantagenets who’d been biding their time since the Wars of the Roses to take over once more. The fact that Henry VIII had six wives is not really historically significant, but how he achieved this feat is. Henry led England’s break from Rome during the Reformation–a government program that really took off because, as in all successful government programs, those in charge had lots to gain from it. It swept through England in a wave of new found patriotism. The British didn’t have to throw money and swear fealty to a corrupt Church to save their souls any more. Instead, they’d have to throw their money at a corrupt king. How their nationalistic hearts must have swelled with joy.

It is said that when Henry VIII died, his coffin burst open and dogs lapped at his blood. Because that’s what you get for being such a git. But as hard as it is to believe, Hampton Court represents something bigger than the larger than life (fat), ulcerous lecher who followed convention by having extra marital affairs because no self-respecting king would be expected to have sex with just his wife for the rest of his life. Never mind that this dude had six wives and 2 of them didn’t retain custody of their heads in the divorce proceedings. A king’s supposed to be a playa’!

The palace is divided into 2 parts: One represents the reign of the Tudor dynasty, and the other the reign of King William III and Mary II. The part that Parliament played during these two eras helped shape the country as we know it today.

“Really, Ivory? How’s that?”

I’ll tell you. Don’t interrupt.

During the Tudors, the King controlled Parliament–there can be no session until the King (or Queen) calls it. By the time of William III and Mary II, you can’t be King of Anything unless Parliament says you can. As with most things, it had to do with religion.

The notion of having a personal choice for what “spirit in the sky” to blame and pray to for all the stuff you get in life, then peacefully agreeing to disagree with other people so as not to seem racist, is something we still haven’t mastered today. Except back then, instead of merely starting wars, you also have the personal risk of getting a good burning at the stake in a morbid version of a state bbq. There were no two ways about it–England needed to be free. Of all Catholics. Including the Stuart King, James II. Stories involving fake heirs and bed pans were circulated and the King was effectively fired from rule during the hip-sounding event known as the Glorious Revolution. It is “glorious,” so don’t be a spoilsport and point out that England now has a foreign king with a foreign agenda.

William III and Mary II's side of Hampton Court.

William III and Mary II’s side of Hampton Court.

Mary II is James II’s daughter, and when Parliament decided Catholicism is out, it solicited the help of Mary’s husband, William of Orange. Since it was Mary who had the claim to the throne, William was willing to go Dutch (haha) and so started England’s first and only affair with a dual monarchy. In truth, Mary had very little say in decisions that did not involve color schemes for the bedroom and kitchens. Parliament thought this would be fine since the heir, once born, would have legitimate claim to the throne and meanwhile the country will be protected by a great military leader as intent on Protestantism as Parliament is. This plan went to the dumps when Mary died less than five years after coronation and William himself died in 1702, after his horse tripped on a molehill. Glorious.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

hampton court great hall ivory

I’m not an active Catholic, can I sit on the throne? No.

This is probably why even though law books in the UK have nothing stating the separation of church and state (in fact, technically those two are one and the same), you wouldn’t see so many people going mental when laws like gay marriage are passed. The country seems to have had enough with tossing off policies in the name of religion. What is the point of killing each other for something no one is sure about because no one can prove/disprove it? Is there really a need to die in order to prove you’re right?

I mean, seriously, doesn’t an act like that just prove the opposite of right? I’m still not sure what a “cute day” is, but I’m pretty certain it doesn’t involve this.

References:

http://www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hampton_Court_Palace

http://www.hamptoncourt.org.uk/

http://www.hrp.org.uk/learninganddiscovery/Discoverthehistoricroyalpalaces/monarchs/henryVIII

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/hampton_court_01.shtml

The Old Operating Theatre

Located in the attic of an English Baroque Church, not far from London Bridge Station, is Britain’s only surviving 19th century operating room. The patients here were all women and they were all poor. You get a sense of going through a time portal as soon as you try to negotiate the steep and narrow spiral staircase that leads to the entrance.

Here be dragons.

Here be dragons.

Adding to the feeling of time travel is the price of admission. If you’re in the area and have £10, you’d be able to visit this place, and still have enough left for a pint afterwards–in case you feel a need to “take the edge off.”

This is what separates the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett from other medical museums.  Yes, you’ll find the usual rusty medical tools, jars filled with preserved entrails and fetuses that are so common in other venues dedicated to the history of medicine. But it’s more than just a sterile, commercial environment to satisfy the public’s morbid curiosity for what most would describe as barbarous medical practices in the days before the concept  of sanitation became synonymous with the term “hospital.”

It makes no excuses for its odd location in the attic of a church. It is what it is, standing where it has stood since 1822, and it’s not going to change just to cater for your 21st century sensibilities. It’s  almost as if it’s saying you have no business being here if you are not aware that St. Thomas’ Church used to be connected to the old St. Thomas’ Hospital, so of course it makes sense this place was rediscovered here, largely undisturbed after a century of somnolence, where time stood still while the outside world was too busy in its relentless pursuit of “progress”  to notice it. It looks exactly like it did before its closure in 1862.

The Herb Garret.

The Herb Garret.

The entrance leads to the herb garret, and immediately, scents you’d associate with an 1800s apothecary assail you. Dried herbs hang from the beams and the floorboards creak in protest with your every stride. There are recipes for known “all-around cures” such as snailwater and laudanum. You expect to see a bearded man sporting a pipe and a waistcoat to appear, looking offended by your trousers and suggest your malady can be cured by a bit of bleeding, and assure you that he has just the freshest leeches for the job.

Only the threat of being sent to Bedlam stops you from demanding the man keep his filthy hands to himself, to point out that there will come a time when both poor and rich people have equal access to the same quality of medical facilities and services. Of course, you don’t specify when such a ludicrous thing would happen, since you haven’t seen it happen in your own lifetime either. Perhaps you should be sent to Bedlam, after all.

The museum is a place where you can scoff at 19th century atrocities that are so prevalent in the modern world, we’ve become numb to it. This is the place where grim things happened, not just a tribute or reminder of it.

The Old Operating Theatre, picture taken a few years ago. For me, it's also a reminder to refrain from indulging too much in fried chicken.

The Old Operating Theatre, picture taken a few years ago. For me, it’s also a reminder to refrain from indulging too much in fried chicken.

It’s a given that the medical world today is more advanced than the crude practices of the 1800s, when students watched from the stands in a crowded room to observe an operation taking place. These days, at least the students can observe and giggle about the procedure in a separate room. Perhaps one of the medical students would even look like that girl from Grey’s Anatomy, so we can’t be too offended when they start flirting with Dr. McDreamy as you lie exposed to the world.

It’s hard to imagine that in the days before disinfectant and antibiotics, a poor person could be treated by some of the best surgeons of the day (many of them pioneers in their field), for free, as long as they agree to being observed by students. No, the operation does not happen in a plush private kitchen, but you can’t expect luxury treatment from the NHS, either. You do get treated, though. We’re able to cure more diseases now, but being turned away from the ER because you have no health insurance is not unheard of.

Back then, there was no concept of germs and sanitation, so many people died of infection rather than the initial injuries that caused them to be present in the operating room in the first place. With the advent of disinfectants, I’m certain there is no possibility that any in-patients would get worse because of an infectious and undetected virus spreading in the hospital any more. And with the discovery of penicillin, no one relies on medicinal herbs or alternative therapy any more, either.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is also associated with this place. Most people know her as the one who popularised hygiene in medical practices and her nursing school, which elevated the reputation of women as nurses, was in St. Thomas’ Hospital. Because of her, it’s now acceptable for a woman to be a practising nurse, with qualifications as valid as any male nurse, and no one is going to claim their sex is the reason they’re incompetent or that they’re stealing the men’s jobs, not aloud anyway. It’s political correctness gone mad. She might not have known it then, but without Florence Nightingale, the sexy nurse costumes that have become a staple for Halloween would not even exist.

Thanks, Florence!

Thanks, Florence!

I won’t say anything about “bonking someone in the head” as a form of anaesthesia, though. Like leaving scissors in someone’s stomach, some things are just indefensible.

References:

http://www.thegarret.org.uk/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Operating_Theatre_Museum_and_Herb_Garret

http://www.daysoutguide.co.uk/the-old-operating-theatre

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355780234766/

http://www.wellcomecollection.org/explore/time–place/topics/london/video.aspx

The Tower of London

For a ghost, there is probably no better gig than haunting the Tower of London.

Competition is tough. One has to be an exceptionally cunning ghost to co-haunt this fortress. Please, don’t even attempt vying for a spot unless your name should be chosen by some kid hoping against hope it’s the right answer to a history exam question. Don’t feel sorry for that kid.  She had plenty of time to study for said exam yet decided to cram the night before and fell asleep instead.  If that kid ever tours the Tower of London, I bet she wouldn’t be there showing proper appreciation for the fact that it’s the setting for many of the most pivotal, notorious events in history. I bet she’d be doing things like this:

Shame.

This site has been standing since the time of William the Conqueror, and right from the beginning, no one has been able to take control of Britain unless they controlled this stronghold. Even the unfortunate Wat Tyler knew this when he led his homies during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. With Lollard priest John Ball’s catchy sermon of “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” spinning  in their heads like the medieval equivalent of a Last Song Syndrome, the peasants stormed the Tower in their quest to end serfdom (and also to make fun of the young King’s sister and mother).

For a fee, peasants can still enter the Tower uncontested today.

For a fee of about £20, peasants can still enter the Tower uncontested today if they form orderly queues.

Once inside, you can let this awesome thing hear YOU roar!

Once inside, you can let this awesome thing hear YOU roar!

The peasants eventually managed to have Richard II concede to their demands, but for all their talk of equality they forgot to shrug off the notion that a King is noble and naturally more trustworthy than a common criminal. So they lowered their arms, began to disperse and shrugged their heads off instead, which ended up on pikes to serve as an example to future detractors.

Perhaps being an indicator of who controls the country is the reason that just thinking of this UNESCO World Heritage Site conjures images of imprisonment, torture and execution. It seems a recurring pattern in history that the interesting people die first, then inspire others before any real change can occur. One needs a bit of control to change things, and those in charge will not be willing to give it up. By the 16th century, being “sent to the Tower” meant you’ve become a threat to the rulers and the lifestyle to which they’re accustomed.  It was like a rite of passage–you can’t get any street cred until you’ve been “acquainted” with the Yeoman Warders who guarded prisoners in the Tower. It was a classy sort of capital punishment and it makes sense in a world where (depending on the circumstances, of course) people get to decide when and how to end another’s life because that’s justice but God forbid if something ever happens to those Tower ravens…

A Yeoman Warder.

A Yeoman Warder.

Naturally, everyone who was anyone had to be associated with the Tower in some way, and they would usually have these wonderful options to claim as their reasons to stay: imprisonment, torture, execution, murder. Now, with all those choices it can be a bit daunting.

Thankfully, they didn’t have to choose just ONE of these reasons and the simplicity of the system seemed to work because it became all the rage. It’s the surest way to draw attention if you ever get to the point when you want to finally speak out and declare that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Here’s some of the lucky few to belong in this exclusive circle of Tower prisoners: William Wallace, James I of Scotland, Richard II, Roger Mortimer, The Princes in the Tower, Henry VI, Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, Samuel Pepys, Sir Robert Walpole… if any one of this select group of people doesn’t at least sound familiar, then no worries! You can look them up now (you’re welcome).

She'd be the one doing things like this.

See, I told you not to feel sorry for that kid, lol.

REFERENCES:

http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/?gclid=CMLxpKuVwLcCFajKtAodyxQAhQ

http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerofLondon/stories

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_London

http://www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/stories/buildinghistory/

http://www.history.co.uk/explore-history/history-of-london/tower-of-london.html