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Susannah Place

1 Feb

A party for soldiers going to war

You enter through the little grocers shop on the corner.  Jars on the counter of aniseed balls and wrapped toffees, boxes of fly papers and starch, neatly lined up on the shelves.

We’re hot after the walk up the hill from George Street in heat of almost 100 degrees.  Sweat beaded on upper lips, small children looking like lettuce that’s been left too long in a sauna.  There is some small relief to be had from stepping into the building and out of the sun, but the close, poorly ventilated rooms do nothing to cool us down.  It seems rather fitting, as it gives us some idea of what it must have been like to live in this densly packed area of the city in the days before fans and air conditioning.

The rooms in the row of four terraces have been restored as minimally as possible, walls and floors have been left as they were found.  Layers of lino reveal themselves, piled one on top of another, like Turkish rugs in a shop.  Paint flakes and peels, colour upon colour, like an intricate work of art.

Each room represents a family and the era that they inhabited the house.  The curator tells us stories about the people who lived there, ordinary families living quietly, printers, dock workers, seamstresses, labourers and their children, elderly parents, lodgers.  Baby Anna slept in the crib in the 1840’s, Nana Moran stoked the copper and did her washing every Monday during the 1950’s, Ellen made children’s clothes on the Singer sewing machine in the 1970’s and Mary Ann ran the shop in the 1870’s.

There are few items of period furniture, and fewer personal possessions, a rosary, a homemade go kart, an outfit in a wardrobe.  Some things are new, like the curtains and blinds, some the original possessions of the inhabitants, like the 1970’s washing machine in the yard, and little can’t be touched.  The arrangement of belongings in the cracked, peeling, layered buildings feels like an art instillation.  A small decorative bird cage, someone’s pride and joy, hanging on a wall mottled like an old person’s liver spotted hand, is strangely moving.

The day before we also visited the excellent Rocks Discovery Museum.  We learnt about the history of the area through informative displays and answered riddles to work out the stories.  I can’t fault it, and it greatly added to my knowledge of early Sydney.  But it’s Susannah Place that will stay with me.  The muted greys and greens of the pockmarked walls, the single fly paper hanging from a bedroom ceiling, a little china donkey in pride of place on a mantlepiece.  People’s lives.

Te Papa

30 Dec

Samoan musical instruments

I love museums. In London we visit them all the time, I’m quite the connoisseur. So when I read that Te Papa in Wellington is considered to be one of the world’s best museums, it was added to must do list.

It didn’t disappoint. I’d go so far as to say that it’s the best museum I’ve ever visited. I know that sounds like wild exaggeration, and I’ll be the first to admit that I can exaggerate with the best of them, but in this case, it’s true. It really is a wonderful place.

Te Papa can be roughly translated as the place housing the treasures of the nation.  Or something like that.   But it does more than just house the treasures, it attempts to encapsulate what it is that makes New Zealand unique and what it is to be a Kiwi.  Actually, it doesn’t just attempt it, it achieves it magnificently.

The first level covers the natural history of New Zealand, the highlight of which has to be the colossal squid, the only one of its kind on display in the world. It has eyes as big as footballs!  Well, one eye as big as a football, its lost the other one.

The next floor up is all about earthquakes and volcanoes, which we skipped, having done a lot of that stuff in Hawaii.  We could have happily spent three days in the place, but sadly only had one.

The third level, and the one on which we spent the most time, is all about nationhood and the human influences on New Zealand.  The Maori artefacts are beautifully displayed, with buildings you can enter and a real Marae (meeting house) that was commissioned from the best Maori carvers living today.

The South Pacific section includes a cow made from tins of beef, Captain Cook’s Hawaiian feather cloak and a film about the long sea journey’s taken by people from all over the Pacific to New Zealand cleverly projected onto a model of a boat, bringing it alive.   There’s also lots of information about the modern South Pacific influence on New Zealand, which is considerable, not least because of the numbers of Islanders who’ve immigrated here.

Other sections on this floor covered recent immigration and of course, the British influence.  The whole thing is done with a lack of formality and a good dose of dry Kiwi humour. There can’t be many museums that use fake grass, caravans and flip flops, sorry jandals, to muse on what nationhood means.

One of the highlights on this floor is a junk shop that literally comes alive, telling the story of 20th Century New Zealand. The top two floors are dedicated to art, and I had a brief look at some wonderful photos by New Zealand’s most famous photographer, Brian Brake, who was a member of Magnum.

In all areas of the museum are thoughtful children’s sections, which are fully integrated into the main sections, with real exhibits, presented in a way that’s engaging for children. So as well as the usual dressing up, we did Maori flax weaving, had a ukulele lesson, played in a 1950’s corner shop and beat mulberry bark into paper.

Throughout the museum the staff were knowledgeable, enthusiastic and keen to answer whatever question we asked, if they didn’t know the answer, they did a google search for us.

We came away with a really good picture of the country, it’s influences, natural history, geology and what it means to be a citizen. New Zealanders are very proud of Te Papa, they have every right to be.

We love sugar

16 Nov

I had my first Auntie Mabel moment today.  Come Outside has long been my favourite Cbeebies programme.  I particularly like it when Auntie Mabel flies with Pippin the dog in her spotty plane to visit factories and see how things are made.  Things like toothpaste, wellies and pencils.  It’s fascinating.  And then she sings a song about what she’s seen.  It’s got everything you could possibly want from a children’s programme.  She used to be Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, which I think you’ll agree is a much better pedigree than the dreaded Mr Tumble’s.

Today we went to the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum on Maui.  Housed in the shadow of the belching, factory chimneys, in the old manager’s house, it was small but perfectly formed.  We learnt about the demi-God Maui and his harnessing of the sun, irrigation, the families who came to Hawaii as missionaries and stayed to make their fortunes, the immigrants who came from around the globe to work in the cane fields and how they created Hawaii’s cultural melting pot, and of course how sugar is made.  After watching a very informative ten minute film, we inspected a fully operational, 3\4 inch to one foot scale model of a sugar cane processing plant.  It had been built over a period of thirty years by Mr David Dargie, who when interned by the Japanese in WWII, managed to smuggle it into the prisoner of war camp.  It’s a very fine model.

The museum was a joy.  And I hope the first of many Auntie Mabel moments.  The only problem came near the end of the tour.  Dickon asked when we would be seeing the real factory.  We explained that the giant rollers and rotating blades used to process the sugar cane weren’t terribly safe, so we wouldn’t.  He wailed, until he realised that he could get a free sugar sample, which he proceeded to demolish, making himself rather sticky.  He was followed by a small cloud of flies for the rest of the morning.

free sugar samples

Flamingo croquet, French fotheringales and green parrots

23 Apr

or a family day out at Hampton Court Palace

Lewis Carroll must have had Hampton Court Palace garden in mind when he wrote Alice in Wonderland. Tulips as upright as soldiers, spotty panthers and golden lions planted amongst the cowslips, ancient yew trees with topiaried canopies, the famous twisting maze and Henry VIII himself, striding purposefully along the avenues, guarded by manificiently pantalooned gentlemen. The green parrots resting in the cherry tree add a final surreal touch.

Of course there’s interesting stuff inside the Palace too. On this visit, Eve and I enjoyed helping Kateryn Parr get dressed for her wedding to Henry VIII. We learned about front parts, fore sleeves, fotheringales and French hoods as Kateryn and her Aunt gossiped about the Privy Council and Anne Boleyn. On other visits we’ve helped turn the enormous spit in the kitchen, been shown around the Georgian wing by a ghost and helped to make a marzipan crown for one of Henry VIII’s wedding feasts.

But on a beautiful English spring day, it is hard to stay inside for too long. The gardens are an absolute joy. There are cooling fountains, a long, grassy riverside walk, a flower filled meadow with shady trees and bold robins who almost feed out of your hand. The formal gardens are perfect for games of hide and seek and flamingo croquet. And the topiary hedges are so huge and so wonderful that a whole family of small children could set up home in one of them.

Sir Dickon had to be lured out with tic tacs.

This post was written for Photo Friday over at Delicious Baby.  For more travel photos, head on over…

And THIS is why I love London so much

12 Mar

On Wednesday I was wandering through Soho and saw this.  It’s fake hair.  The building is an art gallery which used to be a gunmakers.  History, bizarreness, art.  We’ve got it all in London.