Category Archives: Museums

Great Fire at the Museum of London

I’ve not yet seen the Museum of London’s new Fire! Fire! exhibition, but I did speak to curator Meriel Jeater for a preview in the current issue of World of Interiors.

Jeater told me that a section of the exhibition would look at the conspiracy theories about who started the fire. Some felt that such a devastating conflagration had to have some supernatural origin, so blamed a God angered by London’s heroic capacity for fornication and greed, and its execution of Charles I. Others blamed a more corporeal other in the form of the Catholics, with a Frenchman, the obviously disturbed Robert Hubert, helpfully confessing to arson.

He was hanged and for almost 100 years a plaque (pictured below) was on the wall at Pudding Lane claiming that “here by the permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous papists”. It was eventually taken down because so many people were stopping to look it traffic could not pass. For years after, people continued to claim responsibility, such as one man who insisted who was inspired by the devil and would do so again, and a boy who said he started the fire with the help of his uncle.

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The exhibition will feature this plaque, while also looking at the history of fire in London – a resident in 1170 insisted that the “only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires” and there were half-a-dozen major fires in the 17th century before 1666. It will then cover how the fire spread and how it was tackled. Numerous artefacts recovered from rubble-filled cellars will go on display, along with contemporary letters by Londoners about the fire. Finally, the exhibition the reconstruction of London, looking at the various plans, the new building regulations and then the reality of how London was finally rebuilt. Illustrating all this will be lots and lots of maps. “It’s hard to get your head round it,” said Jeater. “You look at it and wonder how people coped, how London was put back together again.”

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Tate Modern – a tale of two power stations

I went to see the new Tate Modern extension yesterday and very impressive it was too. The extension by Herzog & De Meuron manages that rare trick of looking new and exciting while also reflecting the character and style its neighbouring building. It reminded me a little of the way the British Library sits so comfortably yet confidently next to St Pancras.

 

The interior is also neatly done, despite some very peculiar shapes in corners. There appears to be more public space than in the original galleries – although that may be because it was filled with only 100 or so journalist rather than several thousand tourists – and it feels genuinely sociable, as well as realistically industrial. The viewing platform on the 10th floor is great, although the vista to the south is sadly blocked by the hideous tower to the left of the image directly above.

The art was fun too, featuring some great oversized installations on the second floor, plus a mix of disciplines – including incredible street photography taken in Newcastle – and loads of women and international artists.

Naturally, this sensitive, thoughtful and exciting treatment of what was once Bankside Power Station got me thinking about its older sibling along the river in Battersea. Both buildings were the work of the same architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and so naturally share a similar style, most notably the use of decoration on the brick envelope to dress the mass, making it more palatable. Some critics believe that Bankside is the better building, describing it as Scott’s masterpiece.

It is certainly a fine building but I’m not even sure I was aware it existed until it was converted into Tate Modern in 2000. I would have walked past it, sailed past it, looked straight at it numerous times – but the fact of its existence escaped me. This is not uncommon I’ve found and Bankside, for many, only became noticeable when it was turned into an art gallery, finding in its second life a prominence that had eluded it for decades – and perhaps this invisibility is something Scott should be commended for, as the power station’s presence on the river opposite St Paul’s was immediately and understandably controversial.

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This is all in stark contrast to Battersea, a building that once seen is impossible to forget and which has always had a prominence you rarely find in industrial buildings, let alone their ruins. Only now, as Battersea disappears behind a curtain of contemporary glass and steel is that threatened – so while Bankside eventually found visibility in its afterlife, Battersea faces obscurity, with the thoughtfulness of the Tate’s new extension highlighting the brash ugliness of the new developments around Battersea.

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As ever, one ponders alternative presents to that in which we find ourselves. When it became known in the early 1990s that the Tate was looking for a second building, having acquired a collection too large to be contained within the original Pimlico gallery, campaigners at the Battersea Power Station Community Group wrote to the trustees, suggesting they make a bid for Battersea Power Station, then still in the hands of theme park magnate John Broome but already in a terrible state. This, they argued, would make the perfect location for a new art gallery: it was huge, impressive, historic and directly across the river from the Pimlico site. Romantic as this might have been, Tate’s trustees – possibly alerted to the idea of using a power station by the campaigners – instead plumped for Bankside, which had closed in 1981 and facing demolition, for entirely practical reasons.

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Inside Bankside before the art arrived

For one, Bankside is much smaller than Battersea, only a third the size. Secondly, Bankside is much easier to get to, surrounded by tube and rail stations, and even a new bridge to the City, while Battersea is strangely isolated despite its prominent location. Thirdly, Bankside wasn’t listed, making it much easier to convert -and later, to stick gargantuan limpet-like extension alongside, when it turned out the original building was too small.

Bankside was saved and the arrival of Tate helped precipitate a huge cultural change along that part of the river. Further west, however, Battersea’s struggles had barely begun.

Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station published by Paradise Road.

The Black Museum at the Museum Of London

The Museum of London’s new exhibition is undoubtedly something of a coup. Crime Museum Uncovered features around 600 items from the Met Police’s private museum, once known as the Black Museum but now renamed the Crime Museum. I visited the Crime Museum at Room 101 in Scotland Yard several years ago and wrote about the experience here.

What’s fascinating is the differences between the way a public museum like the MoL treats the same objects as the police museum. The shelf above is from Scotland Yard. It is located in an ante room before the museum proper and contains a selection of weapons seized on the streets of London, and above that a dozen or so death masks taken of the heads of executed prisoners. This is pretty much the first thing visitors to the museum will see and the ensemble is like a whack on the head with a cosh. It says London is full of criminals, this is how they will try to kill you and this is what we will do to them when they are caught.

At the MoL, the same material is treated much more sensitively. Only six or so weapons are exhibited, and these are placed neatly in a clean glass box rather than scattered higgledy-piggledy over an old table. The heads are also on exhibition, but some distance removed from the weapons, creating a disconnection between crime and punishment.

That is, perhaps, the only way the MoL could present this exhibition. I’ve said before that the Crime Museum as curated by the police is entirely inappropriate for the public and I’m not entirely sure it’s appropriate for the police as it is deliberately created to cultivate an air of suspicion bordering on the paranoid, a repeated insistence that the streets are not safe for policeman, that anybody could be out to kill you, using anything from an umbrellas to a telephone. It’s an attitude that goes some way towards explaining the deaths of numerous Londoners at the hands of the police.

The MoL also has to fill in some of the blanks at Scotland Yard. The Crime Museum is ostensibly a teaching museum  – it shows coppers the history of crimes and how they have been solved. But the cases at Scotland Yard contain little explanatory detail – that is provided orally by the curator. At the MoL, by contrast, there is a fairly thorough, detached but instructive look at a selection of important crimes, showing what they have revealed about forensics, police procedures, detective work and criminality (many of the cases, too many, concern crimes against women). They also touch on several of the most significant crimes of the era, including the Krays, the Richardson, Derek Bentley, Dr Crippen, Christie and the Acid Bath Murderers. It’s all very carefully selected and brilliantly explained, with items well chosen to both inform and occasionally horrify. This is easily the best part of the exhibition.

Gloves worn by John Haigh to dissolve the body of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, 1949 © Museum of London

Gloves worn by John Haigh to dissolve the body of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, 1949 © Museum of London

The MoL then breaks away from these individual crimes to look at broader themes, such as concealed weapons, drugs, forgery, armed robbery and espionage. While the focus on individual crimes does not include anything from after 1975 to avoid distress to victims’ relatives – which means the infamous Dennis Nilsen cooking pot isn’t on show thankfully – the exhibits on broader themes go right up to the present day. That is largely so they can show items related to the July 2005 bombings in the form of reconstructions of the homemade rucksack bombs, something I found particularly unnecessary as these weren’t even from the crime scenes, which is a core part of the Crime Museum’s relevance. Authenticity is absolutely vital here – it is the raison d’etre of the entire collection – and if the items are not original, you leave yourself open to accusations of Chamber of Horrors style ghoulishness.

It’s a rare misstep from an otherwise sensitive exhibition, that ends with an excellent film in which policeman, curators, crime victims and professors discuss crime, the museum and its role in police life.

the first criminals to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based on fingerprint evidence, 1905 © David Gill/Museum of London

the first criminals to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based on fingerprint evidence, 1905 © David Gill/Museum of London

So that’s all good, but I still came out of the Museum of London exhibition with mixed feelings.

It goes right back to the start. The exhibition begins with a “reconstruction” of the original Victorian museum. But this is a reconstruction in the very loosest sense – basically, it means the items are old but they are being presented in a very modern way. That is far removed not only from the Victorian museum but also from the contemporary Scotland Yard museum, which does not look, feel or smell modern at all. The Crime Museum is old-fashioned, cluttered, chaotic and deeply depressing, and a genuine piece-by-piece reconstruction, or even a photograph of the current Scotland Yard museum, would have been a real benefit, as otherwise it’s impossible to discern the peculiar atmosphere of the place. Without it, the MoL are sanitising not just the nature of crime – which is excusable – but also the nature of policing, which is not. That after all goes to the heart of what the Crime Museum is about, who it is for and what that means to Londoners, and it’s something that is entirely absent from this exhibition – the one hint comes from the only item relating to the long history of riots in London, which is a police shield from Broadwater Farm that’s been burnt by a petrol bomb. What does that tell you about the way the police regard these inner city riots?

The Museum of London have produced a fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking reimagining of the Crime Museum’s contents that explores the nature of crime and law enforcement in London, but it does not tell the full story of the Crime Museum. I imagine Scotland Yard will be very pleased about that indeed.

In the depot

I finally made it to one of the London Transport Museum’s twice-early weekend openings at their Acton depot. where they store the buses, trams and train carriages they can’t exhibit in Covent Garden.

It was brilliant. If you like that kind of thing.

(I wouldn’t like to say the event attracts a certain type, but these were the longest queues for the gents I’ve ever seen outside a football ground.)

I could have spent hours browsing the specialist books for sale, while the kids loved the model railways.

The following pictures are via @callyorange. And go to the next one in September.

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London curiosities, from Don Saltero to Viktor Wynd

This weekend, the grandly titled Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History opens at 11 Mare Street, Hackney. You may already know of Wynd’s whims. An intriguing dandy, Wynd is the founder of the Last Tuesday Society – a body that promotes the esoteric in lectures, salons and workshops – which included Wynd’s own huge collection of oddities and curiosities, acquired over a lifetime of inquisitive travelling and impulsive purchasing. Originally, these items were meant to be sold – Wynd is still a dealer in the weird, a middleman in this strange underworld of people that buy and sell the corpses of giant spider crabs and Javanese hen’s teeth –  but he found “it didn’t work as a shop and it isn’t fun selling stuff. I had to keep buying and you can never be sure what will sell, it’s an endless cycle. So I thought it would be more fun to make it into a museum.”

These curiosities are now going on display as the new museum. And curious they certainly are. On the shelves are two-headed lambs, tribal skulls, dodo bones, plastic toys, lion skeletons, radioactive scallops, Victorian dolls, surrealist art, an artificial foreskin, a cassette of a John Major speech on the subject of red tape, a Victorian mermaid, convict Charles Bronson’s sketches, feathers from extinct birds, a giant hairball from a cow’s stomach and jars of celebrity poo [“How did you persuade Kylie Minogue to poo in a jar for you?” I asked, when interviewing him for Eurostar; “I asked her very nicely,” he replied.]

Impeccably arranged cabinets contain delight after horror after delight, some labelled, others entirely mysterious, but all put together in a way that implies the art of the display, the way these things look on the shelves, is every bit as important as the items themselves.

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London has always appreciated the chance to gawp at a gruesome gallery like this. Wynd’s endeavor harks beck to the very first public museum to open in London at Don Saltero coffee shop in Cheyne Walk in 1695. Saltero, a barber, had previously been known as James Salter and worked for Hans Sloane, the collector who started what became the British Museum. Sloane reputedly gave some of his cast-offs to Saltero, who used them to attract custom to his coffee shop. In 1713, his catalogue boasted in terrible rhyme: “Monsters of all sorts here are seen, Strange things in nature, as they grew so; some  relics of the Sheba Queen, and fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe.”

 

Saltero’s collection included such marvels as  a giant’s tooth, a necklace made of Job’s tears and Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister’s hat, which had been made in Bedford. It was, nonetheless, hugely popular and by 1760 the collection includes priceless artefacts like the Pope’s candle; a piece of the true Cross; the Four Evangelists’ heads cut on a cherry-stone; the King of Morocco’s tobacco-pipe; Mary Queen of Scots’ pincushion; Queen Elizabeth’s prayer-book; a pair of Nun’s stockings; Job’s ears, which grew on a tree and  a frog in a tobacco-stopper. Moreover, it had inspired other entrepreneurs, eager to educate the public in the wider mysteries of the world, to follow likewise. Among those following in Saltero’s wake was Mr Adams of the Royal Swan in Kingsland Road, not far from Wynd’s palace of the strange. In 1756 Mr Adams was exhibiting”the heart of the famous Bess Adams, that was hanged at Tyburn; Sir Walter Raleigh’s tobacco-pipe; Vicar of Bray’s clogs; teeth that grew in a fish’s belly; the very comb that Abraham combed his son Isaac and Jacob’s head with; Wat Tyler’s spurs and the key of the door of the Garden of Eden.”

Well then!

Wynd is an artist as well as a collector and showman, and his museum will double as a gallery, opening with a show devoted to early British Surrealists and including work by Austin Osman Spare, Leonora Carrington, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff. His curiosities are also sprinkled with the occasional artistic embellishment, whether its sculptures donated by artist friends, his own drawings, fine work by the likes of Spare or Mervyn Peake, or more occultish fare, like “blood squeezed from a stone” or a box containing “some of the darkness that Moses brought upon the Egyptians”. These latter items are much like the imaginative exotica of Saltero and Adams, and also remind me a little of Yoko Ono, and her attempt to auction in London a ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’  to subsidise Norman Mailer’s Mayoral candidacy.

Wynd’s collection features a lot of dead things in jars – babies, dissected vaginas, stuffed animals, old bones, beetles, butterflies, intestinal worms – but he rejects the notion that it is simply a celebration of the macabre, a house of horrors designed to shock the straights. “Nobody’s ever been shocked,” he says. “If you are going to a curiosity museum you want to see dead babies, it’s what you expect. That isn’t what’s new, what’s new is the idea that dead babies and Furbies are equally attractive. It’s uncanny rather than macabre, it’s the juxtaposition of items, setting off thought processes.”

“I see putting everything together as an art,” says Wynd. “If you are a collector then the world is your tins of paint and the walls and cabinets are the canvas. Everything has to look right. It’s a way of trying to understand the world, but a world that has no meaning. It’s all the pretty things that show what an amazing place we live in. It’s also an attack on conventional aesthetic values, so we have a Furby, which is seen as completely valueless, sitting next to a rare and valuable skull of an extinct beast, sitting next to Chinese sex toys. I don’t recognise a distinction between high and low, it’s just if I like it. It also makes me laugh. I’m quite miserable and this place cheers me up.”

It’s not entirely clear how much Wynd enjoys his role as a collector. As he points out, most of us collect when we are children, but then grow out of it. The collector is in a state of permanent pre-adolescence, unable to move on, still fixated by those items that first caught his attention many years before. Wynd says that as a child his favourite places were the Natural History Museum and the Pitts-River Museum. In adulthood, he is still trying to locate that childish sense of awe and intellectual awakening.

He recalls being a student in Elephant And Castle and compulsively filling a garage with items he find on the streets – “I couldn’t pass a bin liner without opening it.” Later he moved to Paris and discovered that at the end of the month everybody’s rental contracts ended at the same time, and on these moving days treasures would be left outside every block of flats. “It was heaven.”

The problem, he says, is that a collection is “like a garden. It’s never going to be finished. It’s never done. It’s a psychological condition, it’s stupid, it’s pointless and causes endless worries.” It also gives us the Museum of Curiosities, for which London should be thankful. Go gawp, embrace the uncanny.

First World War in London

Britain declared war on Germany 100 years ago today on 4th August, 1914, and to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War I was asked to write a piece for Metropolitan magazine looking at some of the most remarkable items from the refurbished Imperial War Museum.

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The selection includes items as varied as a mounted German pig’s head and Edith Cavell’s nurse cap. One thing I like about the IWM is that it is very good at driving home individual stories amid the context of immense global suffering and complex geopolitics, meaning you can find numerous, remarkably touching, small personal items in its collections, such as this postcard written on a piece of wood from the Western Front.

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One of the favourite items I came across – or rather, which the incredibly helpful press team at the museum pointed me towards – was this decorated tin, painted by a disabled Belgian soldier in London as part of a fascinating occupational therapy programme.

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The fascinating story of California House at 82 Lancaster Gate is recounted here, but in short the hospital was set up in 1914 by an American expat artist and writer called Julie Heyneman, who – like many in London in the early months of the war – was horrified by the casualties caused by the German advance into Belgium. California House became a refuge for injured, displaced Belgian soldiers who were taught languages and sciences.

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Those left paralysed or limbless were encouraged to take up activities like painting, book-binding, wood-carving and drawing – anything that required manual dexterity. Objects created, such as the tin above, were then sold to Londoners, with the soldier-creator keeping some of the proceeds. A similar establishment, Kitchener House at Cambridge Gate, Regent’s Park, was set up for British soldiers. California treated around 500 soldiers, some of whom were able to return home after the war and make a living from their new skills. It closed in 1918.

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Art and protest at the V&A

I’d been looking forward to the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A for quite some time, so perhaps it was inevitable that I’d end up being disappointed. The exhibition looks at the art and design of protest, the way campaigners create new objects to enhance their ability to protest. Most obviously, this involves items like banners or posters, but protesters can be incredibly creative, and the boundaries for this are almost limitless.

The V&A exhibition, though, all felt a little safe. There was very little here that could upset anybody. The protests could all have come from a Guardian-approved list of righteous causes, while the objects were either strung up high out of reach – inflatable cobblestones, old banners – or dwarfed by the surrounding cabinets made of cheap plywood. Not that that there were that many objects: some posters and banners, a decorated car, some bicycle contraption, a phone with a subversive game and a limited selection of T-shirts and button badges. I was particularly disappointed that the Barbie Liberation Organization, a group that placed subversive voiceboxes inside old Barbies, were represented only by a film much like one you can watch on You Tube.

It wasn’t terrible. I liked the shields made to resemble book covers, for instance, and the Suffragette china has historic importance, while the Fuck The Law pendants made by a Black Panther who has spent 35 years in solitary had a rare power. Certainly more so than the rather trite banner, below, that the V&A clearly love so much they’re selling as postcards. I liked the free sheets they were giving away, though, telling people how to make their own disobedient devices.

Bone china with transfers printed in green, bearing the emblem of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)Coral Stoakes, I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies

Best of everything, though – and the only stuff that really felt at all dangerous even now – were the mock newspapers created by Reclaim The Streets and Class War. These supported a variety of causes, but were generally just designed to piss off the power of the establishment.

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This had a lot in common with the excellent exhibition upstairs in Room 88 called A World To Win: Posters Of Protest And Revolution, where Class War were also represented. This display takes place across two rooms which collectively contained dozens of dramatic posters from more than 100 years of graphic protest across the globe. There are items here from the Weimer Republic, Vietnam, Soviet Russia, Oman, Northern Ireland, Paris 68 and the Iranian Revolution.A lot are designed to shock – dead bodies at My Lai, Fuck The Draft, the incongruity of a poster celebrated the Ayatollah Khomeini placed just across the room from one lauding Angela Davis. The mix worked, and the images were superb.

A few of my favourites are below. but I recommend you check the collection out yourselves. Both this and Disobedient Objects are free.

 

Poster - So Long as Women are not Free the People are not FreePoster - Never Again! Stop the Nazi NF!

Against Apartheid. Boycott South African Goods (Poster)

Les Beaux-Arts Sont Fermés, Mais L'Art Revolutionaire Est Ne (Poster)

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London timewarp: James Smith & Sons umbrella shop, Holborn

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This article appears in the current issue of Completely London magazine

When you first stumble upon James Smith & Sons, it’s tempting to believe you have slipped through a timewarp in the Holborn pavement and landed in Victorian London or, more prosaically, chanced upon a perfectly realised film set. The plate windows of the New Oxford Street shop are crowded with umbrellas and walking sticks, while the polished frontage of carved mahogany, brass, enamel and engraved glass boasts, in richly painted font, that James Smith & Sons was “Established 1830”. It’s easy to believe it hasn’t changed a jot since then.

The interior is every bit as spectacular as the outside, and English Heritage have listed the whole thing at Grade II*, noting that it is a ‘typical high-class late Victorian or Edwardian shop and as such is a rare survival in London’. The shop has been occupied by James Smith & Sons since 1867 and while there have been some updates – a new till, electric lighting – much of the façade and interior date to then. “There have been some changes but not many,” says Robert Harvey, the owner. “A few years ago we spent a considerable amount refurbishing the shop and on the day we opened a customer came in, looked around and said, “I thought you were having it redecorated?’.”

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Fittingly for such a classic-looking shop, James Smith & Sons, which is still owned by descendants of the original James Smith, specialise in the very British trade of umbrellas and walking sticks – as one writer has noted, “the art of applying the shade to the ribs with just the right amount of tension is no small matter”. The umbrella is still seen as a key piece of kit for a well-equipped Londoner looking for protection from the elements in this most rainy of cities, and an umbrella from James Smith & Sons is as desirable as a pair of shoes from John Lobb or suit from Savile Row. The shop is also popular with foreign visitors, who purchase English umbrellas as well as walking sticks and seat sticks (collapsible seats, originally for shooting but now more likely to be found at Glyndebourne). They also once sold items like swordsticks and swagger sticks as well as ceremonial sun shades for African chiefs; according to legend, one American customer asked the company for walking sticks made from every English wood possible and received more than 70. The range of umbrellas stretches into the thousands and about 30% of the stock is unique, existing as just a single item, with its own combination of material, colour, wood and style of handle.

The shop’s appearance is, admits Harvey, an anomaly as well as something of an accident. “Looking through the records, the business survived by a miracle,” he says. “The Smiths never had enough money to refurbish and I’m not sure they were the sort of people who looked long-term – they were never sure how long the business would last.” The appearance eventually became a trademark, and the shop has made regular appearances in London guidebook, even appearing in novels, in one instance when the villain of a thriller purchases a murderous swordstick from a strange old shop “marooned on an island surrounded by traffic”.

But while the appearance is identical to the Victorian shop, the attitude is different. “Unlike the Smiths in the 19th century we see the business as having a future providing a great product,” says Harvey. “But we also try very hard to retain that original character, not as a museum piece but as an example of 19th-century commercialism in the 21st-century.”

Richard Fortey’s secret tour of the Natural History Museum

Some years ago, the writer and scientist Richard Fortey took me on a tour of his favourite items in the Natural History Museum. His book, Dry Store Room No 1, is one of the best books I’ve read about London museums.

1 ‘This is the collection of all known species of humming birds which I used as the cover for my book. It goes back nearly 200 years to the earliest days of natural history as spectacle. One of the amazing things is that the colours, the iridescent feathers, have survived so long. You can even see the tiny eggs, with the appropriate egg in it. This whole bird gallery is a survivor to the old days of the museum, preserved almost apologetically as an example of the classic gallery, but a lot of people still stop and look at it even though it’s just stuffed birds.’

Pregnant ichthyosaur fossil showing three skeletons of young inside her bodys 2. ‘This one of the great sea dragons, an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile. This one is particularly beautiful and informative because within the body cavity you can see here outlined in red, the remains of other smaller individuals. The question originally was ‘were they cannibals or did they give birth to live young’ and the answer is almost certainly the latter. These animals are very like porpoises and almost certainly lived the same way, gregariously and pursuing a very fast life that gave them no time to sit on eggs. But this is very easy to miss.’

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3 ‘The building itself. You can choose anything from the various animals and birds that adorn the interior. Even the pillars are based on the bark of trees. On the whole, the building moves from living to fossil as you go from one end to another and that is true also of the animals portrayed. In the mineral gallery, right at the end above a door on the left is a dodo. I also think that one of the monkeys has been made to look a little like Darwin.’

4. ‘The mineral gallery has probably changed the least since my early days and it’s also the least visited. It’s a classic systematic approach where all the minerals are laid out in cases arranged by chemical composition, so you could come here and learn some serious mineralogy if you started at one end and worked your way through. At the end, in the Vault, where particularly precious minerals are displayed, is something  called bournonite with black wheels shaped like cogwheels. This came from a Cornish mine that has since closed so this is really the only good specimen that will ever be found with this particular chemical composition. It’s now extremely valuable because the rarer something gets, the more valuable it becomes.’

5. ‘The blue whale, it might be obvious but it is remarkable. For a while, during the war, some people working here kept an illicit still in the belly of the whale. So even with the best-known exhibit, there are secrets to be had.’

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6. ‘Finally, head for the geology section in the mezzanine level. This used to be an old-fashioned museum in its own right but now it has been changed and in making space they only put back about ten per cent of the specimens. Each one is individually highlighted so it doesn’t give you the systematic overview or leave room for the quirkier items. But this table is still here. It’s a collection of North European ornamental stones all made into one table. You can even make out fossilised nautiloids of around 450 millions year in some of them, and also fossilised coral. There’s no label for it, nothing to say what it is and where it came from. You and I are probably the first people to have stopped and look at this for several weeks.’

Football and anti-Semitism

The debate about the use of the word ‘Yid’ in football is all over the papers at the moment, including, with breathtaking insensitivity, this front page. I’m not easily offended, but found this headline is horrendous.

The topic of Jews and English football is the subject of an exhibition, Four Four Jew, opening next month at the Jewish Museum London. I interviewed the curator and we touched on the controversy around the ‘Y word’ , as she phrased it. She said that while the exhibition would look at the use of ‘Yid’ it ‘wouldn’t come down on either side of the argument’.

Ultimately, whether you are comfortable calling somebody a ‘Yid’, either in support or in hate, is a personal decision. I made up my mind where I stand a long time ago and here is an updated version of an article I wrote on the subject in Time Out a few years ago.

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I’d been calling Spurs ‘the Yids’ for a couple of years before my dad told me it was racist. ‘Don’t you know it’s anti-Semitic?’ he said. I didn’t, nor had I worked it out from one of my favourite Chelsea chants: ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo/He stands at the back of the Shelf/He goes to the bar/To buy a lager/And only buys one for himself’. Racial stereotypes were clearly not one of my strong points as a 13-year-old.

I’d like to say that I immediately stopped using the word, but I didn’t. Chelsea fans – like those at Arsenal and West Ham – had been calling Tottenham ‘Yids’ for decades. Given that Spurs devotees called themselves the ‘Yid army’ I didn’t see how it caused any harm. I didn’t consider it racist or anti-Semitic, just a near-the-knuckle nickname for a rival football club.

I’ve stopped now. The eureka moment for me came when I was at a game in the mid-90s. Chelsea fan David Baddiel, who is Jewish, was spotted by the crowd after half-time as he returned to his seat with a cup of tea, and several hundred people began chanting ‘Yiddo, Yiddo’ at him, in what I imagine they considered to be an affectionate manner. Baddiel smiled it off – but the penny dropped that this was straightforward racist abuse. Baddiel later wrote:  ‘I told myself that it didn’t matter, that for most of these fans, “Yiddo” simply meant a Tottenham player or fan and that the negativity was about that and not about race.’ However, when Chelsea fans aimed the chant at non-Tottenham Israeli players, Baddiel ‘realised “Yiddo” may mean Tottenham fan but it also means Jew.’ He has since become an outspoken opponent of the use of the word by all supporters, earning him much scorn from Spurs fans. 

It used to be worse. In the 1980s hissing to imitate the release of gas was said to be commonplace, but I have never heard this – or chants about Auschwitz, bar from two drunks on The Shed in a League Cup tie in 1990 –  in more than 25 years of attending Chelsea-Spurs fixtures home and away. By the early 1990s, many fans had realised that was a step too far. I’m sure it still occurs but, in my experience, it’s pretty rare. Although by all accounts, West Ham are still at it. 

The canard that hissing is regularly heard at Chelsea games is often used by Spurs fans, as they attempt to defend their own use of ‘Yid’ but Jeremy Vine, a former Times journalist and another Jewish Chelsea fan, agrees it doesn’t happen often. ‘I’m sure I would notice hissing as it would most likely come from the Matthew Harding Stand, where I sit.’ Vine stopped attending games in the 1980s due to racism and says: ‘Without doubt some of those who chant “Yid” are anti-Semites at heart… but I don’t believe all are.’ The problem is that ‘personal jibes are part of the language of the terraces. Anything goes. And so the boundaries of decency and offensiveness become blurred.’

What muddies the water further is that since the 1970s, Spurs fans have reclaimed what was originally coined as a term of abuse (nobody knows why, Tottenham being no more ‘Jewish’ than Arsenal or Chelsea). Former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates, always torn between defending Chelsea supporters while confronting their excesses, argued that, ‘It is hard to criticise Chelsea fans for calling Tottenham supporters something that they call themselves.’ Chelsea have since rejected this line and now take a zero tolerance approach. It’s worked, to some extent. My old favourite, ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo’ is rarely heard at Stamford Bridge these days. Spurs still get plenty of abuse, but – within the ground, certainly – the tone of it is much changed. 

A few years ago, Spurs conducted a ‘full consultation exercise’ over the use of ‘Yid Army’ because of fears it led to ‘casual anti-Semitism’, but this was criticised by many of their own supporters who felt the chant united Jewish and non-Jewish Tottenham fans. ‘If you are Tottenham, you are a Yid,’ is the line many take. That is what annoyed them so much about the recent FA instruction that all uses of Yid must cease, an argument that David Cameron has now blundered into. Many argue there’s a distinction between chanting ‘Yiddo’ and singing about concentration camps, which is broadly true – unless you’re racist. I’d even go so far to contend that Spurs have won the argument – they’ve reclaimed a term of abuse. But when it leads to casually racist headlines like that published above – and let’s remember that most Jewish people who see that headline will not support Tottenham –  one wonders quite where this will end.

It is, as Joanne Rosenthal, the Jewish Museum curator, told me ‘very complicated. Even if it appears black and white the two poles are very strongly opposed. Fan culture has this nastier side and we can’t ignore it. It’s now become part of Tottenham’s heritage. It’s difficult to tell people what they can or can’t do.’

Perhaps not, and I’m a huge fan of tribalism at football, but sometimes everybody just needs to grow up and move on. Maybe that Metro headline, as trivial and offensive as it is, will give people pause for thought.