No Stuffiness at Middle Temple Law Library

Middle Temple is one of the four Inns of Court in London, for lawyers (barristers) who practice in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different systems). The four Inns are Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and Grays Inn. Each Inn has a Royal sponsor or two (Prince Williams represents Middle Temple), and it is law that a barrister must join one of the Inns upon passing the bar exam, inheriting a free stable of paralegals, a dining hall, and most important, a library dedicated to their needs.

There are eight on staff, and are open to accommodate barristers’ busy schedules on Saturday and by rota (rotating schedule) on Sunday. The library is contained in four floors and two basements, rare books room has temperature and humidity control, rolling stocks. The four libraries of the inns work together to reduce duplication.

Middle Temple in particular specializes in American-related law books connection because of previous colonization schemes. Five of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were “Middle Templars,” according to a pamphlet on the United States Collection, while a whopping 39 signed the U.S. Constitution. Also important: We learned that law libraries tend to pay relatively well.

Our group met with Renae, who was very forthcoming and generous with her time and information. Hailing from Canada, Renae is surprisingly the first rare books librarian the library has employed, though the library certainly has its share. She explained that it was founded in 1641 upon a donation by Inn member Robert Ashley, and that it remains a working law library, although in its earlier years the collection was not necessarily focused solely on law books. The continuing citation of cases from the 17th century prove the need for it, she noted.

She took us to the high-ceilinged banquet hall of the Inn itself and laid out Middle Temple’s eclectic history; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed at Middle Temple, and one of his King John plays has a scene at an Inn — either Middle Temple or Inner Temple (Psst, it was Middle!). Renae pointed out that this was actually a rather natural progression — after all, lawyers by nature are performers, and what is law but performance art?


The library holds some interesting items not related to the law, like a pair of globes, one of land and one of space, by famous globe-maker Emery Molyneux, a 16th century mathematician, the earliest globes in existence. The library holds two of the six known artifacts.

The Rare Book collection is based on the bequest of Robert Ashley, who founded the library in a sense when he died in 1641 and bequeathed his personal holdings to the Inn. Ashley was a man of varied interests, and the first books of the library were not all law books, reflecting Ashley’s interests of alchemy, magic and the occult, especially Rosicrucian practices. Today the library holds 250,000 items, with a strong source of American law resources, as befits its history.


One non-legal book that holds pride of place is one by Pierre Belon from 1555, L’historie de la Nature des Oysequx. From the library’s Rare Books pamphlet: “This is a book on birds and other flying animals lavishly illustrated with multiple woodcuts.”

In previous centuries, Renae explained that the law was more of a day to day thing, more people were touched by law, through lawsuits and the like over land claims. It’s possible Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law evident in his plays came from just intelligent observation. Author Charles Dickens wrote an amusing letter asking for his money back from his time at law school here. The author worked briefly as a law clerk, which is where he may have gathered material for one of his greatest novels, Bleak House, whose sprawling tale revolves around the most famous fictional court case in literature, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.

Middle Temple Library was another expectation-defying trip — not just dusty law tomes (though there were plenty of those both in print and online) but unique items coming from out of nowhere to compel attention.


The Quirky Codebreakers of Bletchley Park

Less than an hour northwest of London lies Bletchley Park, the top secret-codebreaking operation which helped turned the war against the Germans in World War II. As the spread-out complex documented, the concept originated during the First World War, when Commander Alexander Denniston formed “Room 40” to break enemy diplomatic codes. It’s most important coup was decoding the Zimmerman telegram from Germany trying to lure Mexico into the war. It was intercepted by Great Britain and, after being leaked discreetly to America, served to draw the U.S. into the war. “Room 40” later became the Head of Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS).


“Room 40” carried over as a nickname when the enterprise moved to remote Bletchley Park in 1939 as the Second World War heated up. Some but not all of the buildings were reinforced to withstand possible enemy bombing, and situated near trees to make them less a visible target from the air.

The job had become more complicated during the all-to-brief period of world peace: The code-breaking of the First World War involved actual code words, while in World War II the art and science of deciphering coded enemy communication got exponentially more complicated. The ciphers created by Germany’s Enigma machine to conceal their communications were encrypted at the level of the individual letter, making them harder to break, with so many more iterations possible.  

A tour guide explained that the odds of cracking the code randomly was many many trillions to one, making the expertise and technology of Bletchley Park’s machines and human denizens vital to the war effort against Germany. They used Typex machines to break Germany’s Enigma codes.

I was impressed by how the Bletchley Park museum project managed to cover all angles. It emphasized the personalities as well as the complex engineering behind the code-breaking, both on the human and machine level. It showed no hesitation in showing the code breakers as an odd lot, without any singular kind of expertise or training, just semi-random people who had an arcane talent for the newly invented discipline of cryptography: historians, classicists, linguists, even injured soldiers. 

Clearly the team had its share of creatives, and the museum emphasizes that quirky human side to as well as the hard-core language analysis side to charming effect, rounding out the personalities by showing the work of the base’s amateur cartoonists, poets, and satirists, cooped up in Bletchley Park, winning the war. They also feature certain stars, like the young math whiz Bill Tutte.

Along with the sometimes heavy lift of the technical explanations of cryptography, the museum gave a good sense of the personal psychology of the workers at Bletchley: Crammed into huts in a sleepy town away from London, lacking the ability to breathe a word about their live-saving work to outsiders or even among themselves, the museum showed how Bletchley Park became something of a hothouse environment for romance.

An Enigma machine used by Germany to encode messages during the Second World War

It was a diverse group of people (as Google, a museum donor, emphasized in a public-relations display) hurled together on a single task: To break Germany’s encryption intelligence machine, Enigma. Over half of those employed at Bletchley Park were women, unusual for the time. It was here that Alan Turing, later persecuted for his homosexuality, perfected a decrypting machine, the Bombe, that eventually broke Enigma. (Google also created a sort of encryption “Easter Egg” for “Bletchley Park” searches.) Among the exhibits were even some handy tips and warnings on the importance of internet security today.

With items scattered among the several rooms in the visitor’s center and the original huts and buildings, the layout came off as slightly cryptic (see what I did there?) but that probably goes with the territory.


Flawless Wallace

The Wallace Collection is a national museum with no entry fee, housing an impressive collection with a focus on art of the 18th and 19th century. It’s an undervalued treasure in London; I’ve come here many times and don’t think I’ve ever heard of it until this trip. The art was compiled over five generations of one family, the first four holding the title of the Marquesses of Hertford, according to the more informative-than-usual laminated guide-sheet at the entrance. The last was Richard Wallace, and his widow donated the family collection.

Five generations of the Seymour family lived here, and over the years garnered quite a collection. In that five generation, in 1897, his widow bequeathed 5,500 artworks to the country, which later went ahead and bought the house itself to keep the art in. It does indeed feel like it’s at home here — there’s plenty of space for everything, and nothing hung too high to appreciate or uncomfortably crowded adjacent another work.

The Wallace bills itself as an “International Treasure House,” and to prove it, contains an impressive collection of Canaletto’s famous panoramic-style paintings of Venice. The ornate museum still resembles a great family estate, divided into study, boudoir, etc.. There’s even a small conservatory on the landing and the rooms look like they would still be livable with just a return of carpet and chairs that weren’t artwork. Helpful guides in folders at the door of each room explain the origin and meaning behind the paintings.


In an unusual touch, the Collection has laid out in the European Armoury room a few printed catalogs for perusal, where one could research the provenance and details of particular objects under glass. The one I picked up was dated 1962 and I have the feeling there won’t be a revised edition in print anytime soon.

Highlights of this focused collection include holdings in Van Dyck, and various court painters, as well as several Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits and Rembrandts, including a self-portrait. I got my first glimpse of The Laughing Cavalier by Franz Hals, whose eyes follow you around the room, just like the cliche.


I was also struck (figuratively) by the ornate wall tiles in the alcove showing what the smoking room looked like in the late 19th century.


Another room, another treasure: The Swing, a prime example from the period of rococo (a kind of overgrown lush over ornate Baroque style) by the French artist Fragonard, who perhaps deserves more respect than he gets. (I’ve seen this before but only today noticed the shoe flying off her foot).

The Wallace also had more domesticated items, as befits its origins as a house, with tables and chests of drawers inlaid with various marquetry (furniture decoration) along with an impressive selection of porcelain. With strong holdings laid out in gorgeous surroundings with an eye to pleasurable viewing, the Wallace Collection deserves more attention, even in a city with a surfeit of museums like London.


The Quirky Catalog of King’s College

After an all-day day trip to Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon Wednesday, our group on Thursday afternoon entered the church-like environs (on the outside anyway) of King’s College, a public university near The Strand in London. At Maughan Library, the research library arm, we were greeted by Katie, the head of Special Collections, and John, who is in charge of donations.  There we encountered a surprisingly quirky catalogue.

We started in the Foyle Special Collection, with interesting items laid out for our perusal, ranging from the 1500s to late in the last century, including signed books by beat novelist Alan Ginsburg. Pride of place was even given to The Junkie, a cheap paperback from the 1950s written by Ginsburg under a pseudonym, to show that not everything in a collection is necessarily rare or expensive or conventionally “worthy.” More traditional archive items included a panoramic print from Wenceslas Hollar  of London, called The Long View of London, that dated from before the Great Fire of 1666, when London had only one bridge (London Bridge) and the original St. Paul stood.

King’s College was founded in 1829, which is not particularly ancient as English universities go, and has been fluid in that time, absorbing some operations from other libraries and resources, and merging with others. The library has received items from two teaching hospitals so is loaded with medical and scientific items. King’s College Hospital also has a reputation for excellent trauma treatment, which London has had all too much of during our trip.

One major coup for the library happened in 2007, when the collection of the Foreign Commonwealth Office was transferred to Kings, a motherlode of often quirky historical items, many ephemeral, some unique, reaching back 500 years. It’s the research wing’s most heavily used collection, and was the source of the items we saw today.

They took part in the Rare Books London event, but with a typical twist, King’s didn’t merely display just the rare and significant works, but ephemera that becomes rare through obsolescence, like chapbooks. These small, cheaply done volumes were not sold in bookshops, and were sold for the entertainment of the semi-literate: Subjects include fairy tales, gruesome crimes, folklore, and plenty of pictures. In another example of saved ephemera, Katie displayed examples like a selection of pharmacy (drug) labels from long-gone products.


King’s College had eight archivists on staff, which sounds pretty generous, though Katie had the impression that the United States library system funds its archive departments more generously. They try to keep temperature at the Maughan stabilized within a range. When an older book is accessed or about to go on display it gets bumped up the chain to see if it needs any attention. One old book accessed did need some TLC so a conservator gave it a new half-spine.

The acquisition budget is limited, but they do try and fill gaps in their collections when they can. They have strengths in science and health. The library had no Shakespeare First Folio (I think we’ve been spoiled with First Folios on this trip), but did have one from playwright Ben Jonson, a contemporary, friend and rival of Shakespeare: Every Man Out of His Humour, a sequel to Jonson’s popular Every Man in His Humour. Some guy named William Shakespeare acted in Every Man Out… — the playwright was in the acting troupe The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (which eventually began performing solely work by Shakespeare himself).


Katie showed us a poignant item — Anti-Nazi, a sort of magazine, published in Germany in 1930, not bound, but produced in single sheets to make it easier to pull out and access for the purposes of speaking out at Nazi events. It was also for concealment, because even in 1930 one could not bring a book into a Nazi meeting. With nothing for the conservator to put together, it was placed for protection in a plastic binder. It may be the only copy extant.

John noted it was not the easiest thing to do to make book exhibits interesting, all that black text on white paper, so the library tried to find things with interesting backstories or some other novelty.

Our group was split in two, and we crossed to the other end to see the classical reading room ceiling, made of zinc as a precaution against fire, one of the few remaining from the Victorian era.

After the lecture and tour we were escorted to an impressive reception room with a chapel feel where we were served tea and cookies. This room turned out to be the old Domus Conversorum (Latin for “House of the Converts”), where converted Jews could live, after Jews were expelled from England in 1291. This antique space was meant to be incorporated into King’s College, but the architect, Sir James Pennethorne, found the chapel too unstable, so the only thing left of it are the stained-glass windows.  

Katie was charming and asked where we had been (I told her it was all a blur) and about our studies, which made me talk too much about poet, novelist, theologian, historian, critic, and dogged editor Charles Williams.

Losing Our Marbles at the British Museum?

You could spend years in the British Museum without exhausting its wonders, but I’ll narrow things down to a couple of things that interested me.

I had forgotten one could see the “Elgin Marbles” at the British Museum, until the archivist mentioned it during her fascinating talk. The Parthenon sculptures, as the library officially terms them, are a fraught subject.

The Elgin Marbles (after Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire) or, as a pamphlet more neutrally describes them, “The Parthenon sculptures,” depict scenes out of Greek mythology. The Parthenon stood on the Acropolis and was the most significant building in ancient Athens. Again from the pamphlet: “The British Museum tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world…sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries….affirming the universal legacy of ancient Greece.”

Greece has over the last few decades asserted a national right to its national treasure, and accuses Great Britain of keeping up its old imperialist habits. They argue that the sculptures are best seen in their original context, on the hill of the Acropolis.IMG_1300

If I had a say, I would keep the marbles right where they are. The British Museum is an international repository of world culture, and the marbles, as far as they represent a high-point of Ancient Greece, speak to all of what we know as Western culture. It’s only right that the sculptures, which in the early years of the 19th century were in danger of damage or destruction in war-plagued Greece, be displayed in the context of other great artifacts from around the world. As a practical matter, the marbles would almost surely have been destroyed or damaged in the war if Lord Elgin had not intervened and purchased them from the Ottoman authorities between 1801-1805. (The Ottoman Empire, which occupied Greece at the time, stored gunpowder in The Parthenon, a practice not on any list of best archival practices.)

Besides the Marbles, I also saw some fascinating stuff in a free exhibition, “Places of the mind — British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950.”

It included an artist I had never heard of, John Minton, who painted the grim and haunting portrait of Scotland street-life, The Gorbals.


Another one I knew of vaguely, the abstract artist John Tunnard, had a spooky, surreal science fiction painting. There was a surprise from a familiar name, John Singer Sargeant, who I had known only through his polished portraiture of the rich and famous– Graveyard in the Tyrol, eerily prescient of the Great War to come.IMG_1305

British Museum Archives: A Work in Progress


After running the maze of the security line (I was waiting for my bit of cheese at the end) we entered the hallowed British Museum. With a little time before our meeting, I hit the Rosetta stone as the gates opened at 10 am — it would have been smarter in retrospect to wait a few minutes and avoid the early rush (Note: original Rosetta Stone lacked cellphone reflections.)IMG_1289

Archivist Francesca Hillier (the sole archivist of the Museum’s vast collection and only the second one in the history of the museum) led us through a warren of basement tunnels rather reminiscent of a video game that eventually ended in the museum’s Central Archive. (When the fans are off, one can hear the Central Line tube train.)

Here resides a hodge-podge collection of antiquated official reports and correspondence and memos from library Trustees, minutes, and official papers related to the museum. Items in this collection date all the way back to its founding in the former Montagu House in 1759. 

The idea for the British Museum was born when Hans Sloan, a magpie type of collector, donated his collection to the British government, providing the impetus for what is the oldest public museum in the world. There was a lottery to raise the 20,000 necessary to purchase Sloan’s collection, but some of it went awry and that discussion made it into the archives.

Hillier noted ruefully that some of the preservation was done by enthusiasts rather than trained archivists, resulting in some dubious preservation practices, such as folded letters, some still holding their wax seals. The early cataloguing was plagued with inconsistencies and unexplained shifts in headings, with papers bound up under ever-changing descriptive titles whose significance was not immediately obvious.

The cozy archive department consists of herself and five volunteers, among them students and the retired. If she gets conked on the head and gets amnesia, the archives are in trouble. They make do with a single microfilm reader. The building was not fit for purpose when bought, and wings have been added and altered over the centuries. Even now there is room for improvement, but as it is now a “listed building,” changes are restricted. The Museum can’t even make the front door wider to accommodate the millions of visitors it receives annually.

One elephant currently residing in the building is the status of the so-called Elgin Marbles — colloquially named for Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who, with permission of the Ottoman authorities (who controlled Italy), removed some of the priceless sculptures from the Parthenon, which had been badly damaged during war in 1687, when it was being used as storage space for gunpowder. Now Greece wants them back. Hillier took a historical approach, arguing it was a different time that operated under different rules. (Some also make the argument that these works from ancient Athens are in a sense part of our universal heritage and are appropriate for a museum dedicated to that).

Salting her talk with wry humor, Hillier spoke of “dodgy decisions” made with the records in the past, leading to disorganization to the point of hopelessness (though she notes those earlier archivists were doing the best they could). She found a record labeled Carchemish, a record of items related to a site in Syria that had been excavated by Lawrence of Arabia in the 19th century. Unfortunately for posterity, a well-meaning amateur archivist stitched all the Lawrence of Arabia into a single journal. Then and now, there are loads of museum committees, with some papers bound into the “committees-at-large” volumes, and some in the specific related committee with no rhyme or reason. “Not good archival practice,” in Hillier’s dry phrase.

Hillier emphasized that it’s not the Museum of Britain, but the British Museum, which has a more international flair. The Museum is often a sort of library of last resort, as it contains items even the depository British Library lacks. The Museum is open to all “curious and studious persons.” In previous years one had to buy a guide book to find things in the collection.

Hillier showed us examples of the library’s first commercial enterprise from 1912, when one could peruse a small catalog of designs and choose some to have printed out as postcards. I was surprised how streamlined the century-old process seemed to be.

Intriguing to me was this slim, ominously titled volume, List of Suppressed Books, a compilation of material not allowed to be accessed. It was apparently put together during the First World War. Books on the list included some things that kind of made sense if you really really thought hard, such as almanacs featuring maps of England, a book on schizophrenia (?), even a book about mountains (perhaps for fear it would give tips on the terrain to invaders?).


The library was initially far more selective in which patrons were allowed inside — “no persons not grown” — which honestly seemed fair enough, after seeing three sets of children on school trips! It’s always been far more open with receiving items: The museum turns nothing away. There was even an incident involving human remains, but apparently the law was tweaked and the bones were sent elsewhere.

She showed us Dracula author Bram Stoker’s library reader ticket, which granted him permission to access the collection. The Trustee archive also contains books recording the addresses of readers, including Oscar Wilde. Such resources would be more helpful to historians if they were in better order, as the lists come in both alphabetized and non-alphabetized varieties.

Hillier explained how hard it could be sometimes, due to the shambolic-nature of previous cataloguing, to confirm the moral ownership of an item if a member of the public challenges it. Though the British Museum holds 8 million objects, “only” some 3 million are catalogued. They do have everything in the acquisition registers, so they can tell if they have something, but aren’t necessarily able to readily retrieve it.

The new wave of digitizing library items would seem to provide a partial solution to the glut and disorganization. Yet items must be cataloged before any potential digitizing takes place, and Hillier is so busy answering inquiries and taking people like us on tours that can only be done maybe once a month. Hillier gets 2000 inquiries a year. Some of the old stuff is hard to find because of dubious cataloging, like the well-meaning antiquarian who put everything under “A for Antiquity.” Showing that her job involves historical research as well, she recalled trying in vain to answer an inquiry into when a specific representation of a giraffe had been added to the collection. After much fruitless searching it turned out there were no “giraffes” back then — the animal in question was called a camelopard at the time.

There were all sorts of odds and ends in the cramped Central Archive. She even showed us a shell that hit the Museum in 1941 (apparently friendly fire from a British plane).

There are currently some 1,000 on staff at the museum, but in the past there were no women workers (an odd twist given standard demographics) until during the First World War, to combat male shortage at home.

Another more recent puzzler: The library’s awe-inspiring reading room has been closed for a few years, with no explanations (My suspicion: A secret Dalek base!)

After the tour of the Trustee Archives, she took us back out the winding basement area and pointed long tunnel that had served as a bomb shelter for the public during the Second World War.

This was a bracing and forthright discussion of the challenges of archiving, especially “retrofitting” old and inconsistent practices while still keeping up with the daily challenges of a massive and renowned collection.

It’s Maritime!

The class took a boat (which makes sense) heading east on the Thames to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which specializes in British maritime history.

We made our way to the Caird Library’s reading room within. There we met Mike Bevan, archive manager, and Mark, who filled us in on the library in general. The library deals with maritime history, and holds records of the British Navy and Merchant Navy, as well as less-obvious holdings like ship crew lists, documents of the slave trade, and astronomy.

Mike showed us some interesting pages from a leather-bound journal kept by a 17th century Dutch sea captain, Jeremy Roch, a colorful character who illustrated his journal with poems and drawings. After seeing a few journals with accomplished drawings, I remarked that apparently everyone could draw back then, though Mike explained that might be a byproduct of navigational expertise on the part of the seamen.

Fusty, musty-sounding name aside, this may be the most up-to-date library we’ve seen when it came to embracing technology. It uses “tagging” internet-style taxonomy in the catalogs (Mike was proud of the tag “Treasures,” which he formulated as a quick way to access the museum’s greatest hits). And later in the presentation, his colleague Mark beamed stats about the library onto a HDTV screen conveniently set before us as we sat at the long reading room table.

In a tweak acknowledging the special emphasis of the collection, the geography facet gets a priority place in the catalog numbering system, so that items are collocated logically by the battle they refer to, rather than by a particular country’s history of war. Also revealing the library’s maritime emphasis is the very precise UDC (Universal Decimal Classification) number for shipwrecks, 656.61.085.3, which occupies a full shelf, as does the Art shelf, which makes do with a single identifying number on a placard: 7.

We also peeked into the ship journal of one Edward Mangen, 1812, a Navy chaplain who hated his life at sea and vented about the heathenism of the crew and the ditch-like quality of the drinking water. Both journals survived in the collections of Herbert Ingram, publisher of the London Illustrated Weekly (the journals were themselves illustrated, which may explain his interest).

Side note: Mangen’s journal matched crewmembers with the books they owned and were willing to let out, a sort of floating library scattered among crewmates, as the hazards of the waves wouldn’t allow books on shelves to survive the trek. I imagined those hazards results in a loss of a great many works through exposure and being “lost at sea.”

Upon student request, we were shown the Titanic “storybox,” which included some amazing photos of the aftermath of the Titanic’s sinking, letters from survivors on how they escaped, and ephemeral items like the last meal served on board: Corned Ox Tongue, anyone? Also included was correspondence from Walter Lord, who wrote the play-by-play book of the disaster, A Night to Remember.



The library also holds a Trader’s Gallery, featuring archives from the East India Tea Company, which I studied about in the book All the Tea in China.

Mark explained that some 60% of the collection was kept onsite. The Caird Library received about 5000 visitors a year. It’s named for James Caird, a ship owner who became interested in maritime history upon his retirement and raised funds for the library’s founding.

The main archive consists of three stories, temperature- and humidity-controlled, with the shelves on wheels and rails that can be compressed together to save shelf space, or be spun apart when needed to retrieve a work. The works are organized by format, not subject (some of the books are awfully big), including manuscripts from the admiralty and from dockyards. The library is also a depository for ship crew lists. I had not considered that that sort of archival material could be split up among various archives and institutions, as opposed to one centralized location.

Mark explained the library must use three different kinds of software for the various items, including maps. Items earlier than 1850 are considered rare and not loaned out, which can be unfortunate from the reader’s point of view. They use AACR2 (Anglo-American cataloging rules) and are monitoring RDA (Resource Description and Access). Perhaps they are waiting in case something else comes along?

The library attracts academics and people searching out their ancestry, with its bright, wired-up reading room, redesigned in 2011. The earlier version of the Caird (which opened in 1937) looks quite stately and elegant in a photograph, but according to Mark was not very accessible and did not have sufficient computer terminals. Here the site lines are better, so one can keep watch over patrons.

Mike was proud of a rare book in the collection by the astronomer Copernicus from 1546, outlining his groundbreaking heliocentric model of the solar system. The library’s strong holdings in astronomy make perfect sense when you remember how sailors once used the stars as their guide. Since many items are U.K. government papers or records, one often has to obtain “crown copyright” permission to republish the data found here. Incidentally, European privacy protections are apparently stronger here than in the United States.

Maritime archives are yet another subject I didn’t know much about, and I learned a lot in entertaining fashion from Mike and Mark, and this clean, well-lit, surprisingly modern National Maritime Museum.


Justice Served in Nottingham

The National Justice Museum, located in a former courthouse/gaol in Nottingham, some two hours north by train from St. Pancras station in London, has the largest collection related to crime and punishment in the U.K. I’ve been to this crime museum before when it was called Galleries of Justice, before it became a registered charity (for whatever that’s worth) and adopted the blander name it has now.

Once you get past the ground floor’s exhibits on past U.S. civil rights protests and present-day U.K. left-wing protests, the atmosphere remains underlit and spooky and unattended, which means you have to watch for the signs that warn you to watch your head! The museum employs actors in the character of former condemned prisoners, but none were on duty when I visited.

On my self-guided tour I got lost on the three floors and hanging garden more than once, and being alone in the dark or near-dark of a building used for centuries as a prison is pleasantly creepy. There are the standard claims that ghosts of former ruffians now haunt the place, but England is so old it’s practically stuffed with old ghosts.

The items on display of old-fashioned prison punishment, like “turning the crank,” or hard labour, and of public humiliation (pillory, stocks, whipping post, or the hybrid pictured below) are a bit less of a fun tourist attraction, and more suitably grim and intimidating, in this “natural” environment.


Stepping into the small, dank, and dark cells of the condemned can be a pressing experience for sensitive souls. The lower underground parts are the oldest in the complex and it gets darker and drearier as you go, until finally you can have a glimpse into the dreaded oubliette, a dungeon pit which prisoners were lowered into from the top and then left on the floor some 30 or so feet below, the only entrance a trap door in the ceiling.

The museum has a vigorous collection related to capital punishment, which was outlawed in the United Kingdom in 1965. Previously those condemned for murder in England risked being hanged. Placards on the wall featured biographies of both executed murderers and the executioners, and a map of countries that still perform executions. There’s even a hanging mechanism, imported from a courthouse, where one can stand where the condemned once stood and contemplated the final seconds of their lives.

Showcasing the modern-day, kinder, gentler, reformist phase of prison philosophy, there’s a section of artwork by prisoners, some of it quite impressive.

The Blithe Spirit of Beatrix Potter at Blythe House

The Blythe House functions as a valuable archive for the Victoria & Albert museum, rather than necessarily as a public destination in itself. It’s in the proverbial heart of London, if a bit off the beaten track of public transport, inside a former Post Office building. The last thing I expected to see upon entrance were the pop culture toys at the front, including my favorite, the xenomorph from Alien, and a poster from an old exhibition of my favorite comic Peanuts. It does have a reading room that’s open Tuesday-Friday by appointment only.


Curator Eleanor, who hosted us, spoke of a possible move of the collection from Blythe House in five years or so, and emphasized that the prospect made digitizing items all the more important, because if one goes missing in the big move at least you know what it looks like or worse comes to worst have that record. I meant to ask, but forgot, whether the V&A would require dedicated archive movers for their materials to keep them safe and in some kind of catalogued order.

Then she and her assistant Liz introduced the subject of Beatrix Potter (currently on exhibition at the V&A proper) with some watercolors and early drawings by the world famous children’s book author (The Tale of Peter Rabbit being the first of many). Potter was born in Kensington London in 1866, when it was not the built-up area it is today. Her family lived as Unitarians in a rather counter-culture area of London, on the border between city and countryside, which surely influenced the young girl.

Even at that early age it was clear she preferred to draw from life. A scrapbook of caterpillars she drew around the age of 8 is below — perfectly lovely for a young girl, but giving no hint to the artist she would become.IMG_1182

Beatrix Potter and her younger brother even had a specimen cabinet to contain the insects they collected, and engaged in some unsentimental practices on animals that ranged quite far from her children’s tales of fluffy bunnies, such as the killing and stuffing of a pet bat that had gone ill (I don’t think that one was made into a bedtime story.)

Adopted in a way by her governess’s family (her own mother being a demanding sort), Potter’s famous animal characters were hatched in letters to those children. When one of the little boys fell ill, she seemingly on impulse wrote a letter to the boy in story form, with illustrations among the text, featuring a beastie that would become the famous Peter Rabbit.

Potter was comfortably well off, and her literary and artistic output slowed over the years, perhaps because there was that lack of financial urgency, as Wiltshire stipulated. She adopted an anonymous life of a farmer at Hill Top in the Lake Country. She started complaining about losing her eyesight in 1916. She remained unmarried until the age of 47, as her domineering mother found no one suitable. When she died she left the property to the National Trust, which runs it as a tourist attraction.

Her watercolors and early work, powered by art lessons that were perhaps motivated by family and social pressure, were rather pedestrian; she clearly preferred to strike out on her own and work from life, and her science background helped. Her drawings of flowers and beetles were stunningly accurate. Her interest in science led her to draw fungi and eventually write a paper on fungal spores where she put her genius for close observation to good use. She was prevented from presenting it to the Linnean Society on account of her sex. There is debate over how groundbreaking her work was, but it’s nonetheless another interesting side to the author.

Next, we had a guest lecture by the charming and dapper Andrew Wiltshire on another aspect of Potter. Wiltshire’s Powerpoint presentation focused on Leslie Linder, her “codebreaker,” who cracked the alphabetic code Potter used in her journals.

I knew very little about Potter before this morning (or children’s literature in general, frankly) and it was good to have new material, for me anyway, that was important to librarians presented in an entertaining, informed, even personal manner.

Repairing (Not Restoring) at the British Library Centre for Conservation

The outside of The British Library Centre for Conservation is covered in thin wooden logs, which made me think it was surprisingly flammable for a conservation site! Fortunately once inside, it was all safety first, as obvious from the posters and pamphlets covering the bulletin boards.

Liz Rose met us and showed us the book embossing tools framed in the entrance hallway — it’s a dying art, and the museum’s expert is retiring.

The Centre’s work room was as light and airy and bright as the lobby. After the slightly cramped confines of the V&A and the Barbican, it was nice to encounter natural light and wide open spaces (though perhaps a contemporaneous staff meeting accounted for the relatively deserted scene). Rose considered the team lucky to have the natural Northern light coming through the generous windows.

The book binder, a laid-back Gavin, was dealing with maps for a client. He was carefully removing the protective “guards” from the sides of a map of New Zealand used by Captain Cook on The Endeavour. (Edges of maps get stained by handling.) He explained that one really can’t know which conservation methods will end up working and which ideas may backfire for decades (the idea of “indestructible” CD’s came to mind). He said that his personality helps when working with such fragile objects, and I can understand, thinking how my jittery fingers would end up tearing a precious map apart upon hearing the phone ring or a shout behind me.

Next we met Jenny, who was in the process of rebinding an old Chinese language book for English learners, using Japanese tissue made from the mulberry tree (wood not as acidic which helps fend off decay). She talked of her inner debate on whether to make it more Chinese binding four-hole or English three-hole. It was Chinese binding and of poor quality. She eventually decided to keep to the hybrid nature of the work, knowing it was part of the ethos to retain as much of the original as possible. Even down to the “pipped corners,” Chinese style, because sharp corners were considered a weakness.

Textiles have become a bigger part of the museum’s conservation mission, and Rose is the centre’s specialist. Textiles take up space, which was why she was cheering on possible new extensions of the centre to the north. She showed us her work on a rare flag from Great Britain’s India Office archive, one of two that have evidently been rolled up in oil cloth since being removed from their office half a century ago. They were rotted and filthy, perhaps from decades of smoke and fire in closed confines. Rose described the painstaking process of washing the silk fibres without actually getting the flag wet, via Remae (?) and mesh. The picture of the resulting dirty water was nauseating!)

Rose has become busier since she arrived two years ago, and as she is the only one on the textile team, the work has slowed down. It’s also often a two-person job at least to shift unwieldy items like textiles. She noted that when the flag was again ready for display, there would be no attempt to make it look like its original form but only so one could get a sense of what it did look like. 

In fact, each staffer who spoke to us emphasized that their work isn’t restoration but repair.

I learned that the use of gloves for purposes of handling delicate materials, has gone out of fashion here, because they reduce dexterity in the fingers, which can be bad when shifting old delicate items, and that sweat stains go through the cotton regardless.

Honestly, when the subject turned to textiles, my attention threatened to wander, but it was more interested that I thought I would be, and I learned something.