London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art opens Alberto Burri retrospective

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art is one of London’s best small art museums. Housed in an elegant Georgian mansion on a quiet street in the London borough of Islington, it has the best collection of modern Italian art in the city and perhaps the nation.

Its latest exhibition is Alberto Burri: Form and Matter, a retrospective of one of the leading Italian figures in modern art. Burri (1915-1995) started painting while interned in Texas as a prisoner of war during WWII. By the 1950s he was experimenting with common materials such as sacking, plastic, and tar, breaking out of the two-dimensions dictated by traditional painting.

His effect on modern art was huge and spawned many imitators. This exhibition brings together works from a number of museums and rarely seen examples from private collections. Aficionados of modern art won’t want to miss this one.

Alberto Burri: Form and Matter runs until April 7.

Photo courtesy Alex Sarteanesi.

Charles Dickens featured at new Museum of London exhibition

The Museum of London has opened a major new exhibition on one of the city’s greatest writers–Charles Dickens. Dickens and London celebrates Dickens’ 200th birthday looks at the relationship between the writer and the city he used as inspiration for many of his novels.

The exhibition recreates the sights and sounds of 19th century London, something the museum does very well for many eras. London 200 years ago was one of the greatest cities of the world, and one of the worst. The center of global commerce and culture, it was also home to grinding poverty and drug abuse. One item on display is Dickens’ notes from an opium den he used as inspiration for one of his scenes.

Dickens often wrote about the plight of the poor and he knew what he was talking about. When still a child, he had to work ten-hour shifts in a shoe polish factory while his father spent time in debtor’s prison.

The British Library in London is also marking the bicentennial with a small exhibition titled A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural. Dickens loved a good horror story and penned many, although another author once accused Dickens of plagiarism, an accusation that had some foundation in fact.

Dickens fans will also not want to miss the Charles Dickens Museum. Although Dickens only lived here from 1837-1839, the prolific author finished The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby in that time. Even if you’re not terribly interested in him, his house gives you a good idea of a moderately wealthy family home of the era.

Dickens and London will run until June 10, 2012.

Photo of Dickens with his two daughter courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Early human ancestor on display at London’s Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum in London has put an important fossil of one of our species’ early ancestors on display.

Australopithecus sediba lived 1.98 million years ago in what is now South Africa. It’s thought by some scientists to be a transition species between the more ape-like Australopithecines and the later, more human-like genus Homo. While it has the small brain size of the Australopithecines (although larger than most), its jaw and body look more like the Homo species. The hands are especially well-formed and it may have used tools.

Two exact replicas of the most complete Australopithecus sediba skeletons were recently donated to the museum by the University of the Witwatersrand and the Government of the Republic of South Africa. At the moment only one skull is on public view. Hopefully the full skeletons will go on display soon. It’s the first public exhibition of this species in the UK.

These are exciting times in paleontology. New human ancestors are unearthed almost yearly, and more and more of our family tree is being pieced together. At the same time, scientists are being forced to defend and explain their field of study to Creationists, who have already made up their minds that science and religion are automatically enemies.

The most impressive display of human evolution I’ve ever seen was at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. It has a huge collection of fossil hominids, including Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago. One room shows the precursors to modern humans arranged in chronological order to show how primate-like traits gradually gave way to a more human appearance. This is also done with other animals like the horse and hippo. Anyone looking, really looking, at these displays will have a hard time dismissing evolution as some sort of conspiracy on the part of Godless scientists, many of whom are actually devout Christians.

Photo courtesy Brett Eloff.

London’s surgery museums are frightening and fascinating

Ah, the good old days! Everything was so simple a hundred years ago, so stress free. No television, no Britney Spears, no threat of global warming or nuclear war. Life was better then.


Cities choked on coal smoke, people starved on the streets, terrorists blew up innocent people, and the medicine, well. . .

While London has dozens of museums that can tell you about the past, two museums in particular tell you about the hard facts of life more than any other. The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons give you eye-popping tours through the “good” old days of surgery and medicine.

The Old Operating Theatre is exactly that, Britain’s only intact 19th century operating theatre. Dating to the days before anesthetic and before surgeon’s thought it might be help to wash their hands, it’s a sobering reminder of what our great-great-grandparents had to endure when they got sick. The theatre was in use from 1821 to 1862 and survived only because it got sealed off and forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1957.

The theatre was where surgeons and medical students watched the best doctors of the day cut off limbs, trepan skulls, and perform other operations. Beside the operating theatre, there is a large space reserved for displays of early medical techniques and instruments. Behold the glorious cervical dilator, a multipronged monstrosity that did just what it promised! Or the bone saw, which in the hands of a skilled surgeon could cut through a leg in less than a minute. Or the leeches, which were actually quite effective at getting rid of bruises by sucking the blood out of you.

%Gallery-128964%But it’s not all horror tales. These were primitive days, to be sure, yet doctors really did try to help their patients and herbal medicine was quite advanced. Also, there were innovative minds like Dr. Joseph Lister, who realized that disinfectant could help reduce fatalities after surgery, and Nurse Florence Nightingale, who made huge advances in hospital cleanliness to make patients healthier and happier.

The museum chronicles the efforts of doctors, nurses, apothecaries, and midwives. It’s literally crammed with artifacts and displays and an interested visitor can easily spend a couple of hours here.

An equally fascinating and full museum is the Hunterian Museum. Located in the Royal College of Surgeons, it houses a huge collection of preserved human and animal specimens. If you’ve ever wanted to know what a hernia looks like from the inside, this is where to find out. You can also see the large intestine of a crocodile, Charles Babbage’s brain, an artificially deformed skull from ancient Egypt, and the bones of the Irish giant Charles Byrne.

The main draw are the medical specimens of almost every imaginable malady. To actually see what so many people get is a revealing experience. Upstairs are displays of the history of surgical techniques. Unlike the Old Operating Theatre, this museum takes you right up to the modern day and there are some graphic films of operations such as the removal of a brain tumor and an enlarged prostate. Much of this museum is not for the faint of heart, but while I was watching the brain surgery in horrified fascination one brave little ten-year-old girl plopped down next to me and sat through the whole thing. I warned her off the stereoscopic views of First World War facial injuries, though.

While the “eewww, gross” element to both of these museums is certainly present, they are both very well presented and worth the time of any visitor who wants to learn more about issues that will, sadly, affect them sooner or later. It’s strange that these two museums aren’t better known. I highly recommend them both.

London’s seamy side revealed in new exhibition

London has always had an underworld, a dangerous side. Just go out late on a Saturday night and you’re sure to see a fight. For many, the hint of danger is one of the city’s attractions, at least if you don’t have to deal with it full time.

Back in the 18th and 19th century, there was nothing attractive about the St. Giles Rookery. It got its name because tiny apartments were stacked atop one another like birdhouses. Only the poorest of the poor lived there–the beggars, the prostitutes, the gin addicts. Especially the gin addicts. Gin was a national addiction, a cheap way to get blasted. Gin addiction was immortalized in Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane, showing a drunken mother accidentally knocking her baby over a railing while a tradesman hawks his tools and a man hangs himself within view of an uncaring crowd.

Hogarth was no teetotaler. He liked a good drink, as his engraving Beer Street shows. It’s the same scene, gentrified. Industrious drinkers of real ale prosper and flirt in clean, attractive surroundings. It must have seemed like heaven to the denizens of the Rookery.

A new exhibition by the Museum of London looks at the lives of these nearly forgotten people, thanks to an excavation the museum sponsored at the site of the old Rookery. London’s Underworld Unearthed: The Secret Life of the Rookery features finds from the excavation along with contemporary and modern depictions of this Hell on Earth.

The finds remind us that these were real people living here. Children’s toys, simple crockery, and trick glasses used in drinking games give us a glimpse of their lives, and the gin bottles hint at how many of them died. The modern art, created by Jane Palm-Gold, draws comparisons with today’s urban blight. The permanent collection at the Museum of London is well worth a visit too in order to get a better understanding of one of the world’s most fascinating cities.

The show runs until June 3 at the Coningsby Gallery.

[Hogarth prints courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]