Blue: Museums in London

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Museums!

Blue pins represent the museums I visited throughout the two weeks of my trip. There are four blue pins on the map: The British Museum, Museum of London, National History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Four famous museums catering to various ages and visitors, all defining space and Englishness with their contents.

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The Museum of London and National History Museum were both geared to a younger audience. The main exhibit I experienced in The Museum of London used students (both younger and older) to help create and make the experience more contemporary. Glass cases were filled with historical facts next to bottles of sriracha sauce and cell phones, showing us what we would potentially trade nowadays. The National History Museum was packed with young and set up to be easily accessible to children. Everything was colorful and very visual; many of the exhibits had audio and video to explain it’s significance instead of the traditional signs to read. Children could interact and learn from most of the exhibits. To be honest, I felt out of place and awkward in that particular museum. I didn’t fit in or learn anything I didn’t already know.

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British Museum

The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are examples of the heterotopias that Michel Foucault describes in “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias”:  “Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and topping its own summit, the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity.” The Victoria and Albert Museum is a heterotopia because it houses an immense amount of art (over 4.5 million objects!) from around the globe. Objects are placed next to each other that weren’t intended on being categorized together, but are preserved there to be on display for museum goers. Time and space have been broken down, controlled and ultimately erased by how the museum is laid out.

The British Museum, in my opinion, is the best example of a heterotopia. Historically significant artifacts are owned by the museum (the Parthenon sculptures, the Rosetta stone, sarcophagi, etc.) and on display for everyone to see. There is a piece of history from just about every important time period, all kept under one roof. Again, time is no longer linear when one walks through the museum, creating a heterotopia. Though I only visited four (five museums in total, but one isn’t mapped) the amount of museums and their importance defines Englishness. All four of the museums are there to show museum goers the power of the British and to teach people things that the British find important. The National History Museum and Museum of London might be geared towards a younger audience, but they are still displaying the power relations to the children. The Museum of London displays an incredible amount of preserved, animatronic, and reconstructed animals, showing off the technology and the knowledge the museum has (and London, of course). Same goes for the National History Museum, with it’s futuristic feel and high-tech displays. These museums perpetuate the image of the all powerful England that has everything; new technology, ancient pieces of history, more knowledge than anyone else has. A museum goer is meant to experience the museum and be awestruck and overwhelmed by the presentation. My experience in these museums was both enjoyable and critical. Once I caught on to what felt like the “real” purpose of the museums, I saw them in a different light. If you ever get a chance to visit any of these places, think about what the museums are really saying :P!

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Red: Religious Buildings

Let’s begin with religion…

The red pins on the map are for religious buildings I visited. As I said before, some of the places I visited that would’ve fallen under certain categories are not shown, for they are not on my map of Central London. Some people suggested that I guesstimate where the pins would fall and plot them anyway, but I decided against that. This map is the only map that I personally used throughout my entire trip to London. It’s torn and has some highlighter stains on it (as did a pair of my shorts I had to get rid of); the places not shown, such as Highgate Cemetery, were places that I relied almost solely on the directions my professors provided the class with. I didn’t use a physical map to get to those places, so I’ve chosen not to physically map them.

There are four red pins on the board: Westminster Abbey, St. Mary Le Bowe, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and St. Clement Danes. It was hard to find some of the churches on the map because there are so many churches in London! Jeez! Red crosses can be found every few centimeters on the map. This study abroad session has shown me that religion plays many roles on Englishness. I’m not a very religious person myself; yes, I believe in a higher power and try to live a good life and pray sometimes, but organized, institutionalized religion is not exactly governing my life. While in London, I noticed how people, including myself, were affected by the inescapable presence of religion due to the abundance of churches on every corner.

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My class went on a church tour, visiting all of the churches mentioned in The London Scene by Virginia Woolf. St. Paul’s was the first stop on our tour, where some very noticeable things happened. Michel Foucault said in an interview that, in order to understand an architectural space, one must consider “the effective practice of freedom by people, the practice of social relations, and the spatial distributions in which they find themselves. If they are separated, they become impossible to understand. Each can only be understood through the other.” While visiting the churches, I kept an eye out for these factors.

“one must take him – his mentality, his attitude – into account as well as his projects, in order to understand a certain number of the techniques of power that are invested in architecture

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The actual cathedral of St. Paul’s can be seen from miles away; the architecture is breathtakingly enormous and asserts the power of the church for all to see. How everyone was occupying the space around the building was equally as fascinating as the architecture itself. People on the steps of St. Paul’s were eating lunch in business suits, congregated in groups or taking pictures, students (both elementary and college level) and learning about the history of the cathedral; everyone was casual and seemed to move relatively freely about the stairs. What was interesting was how everyone was talking; the noise level was super quiet and respectful, especially for the amount of people around. Though from a distance it might’ve appeared that everyone outside St. Paul’s was oblivious to it, once you took a closer look (and listen) the presence is felt by all. People control their voices and keep them down to a quiet, meditative level that is unobtrusive to those surrounding. Everyone is a bit more respectful of each other here than in other places I visited.

DSC_0694St. Mary Le Bowe’s and St. Clement Dane’s were quite different from St. Paul’s; the churches were much smaller and this affected how people occupied the space. Mary Le Bowe’s has a cafe in the basement, which seemed to receive more attention than the church itself. Clement Dane’s was located in the middle of the road and the inside is no longer open to the public. The smaller sized churches were easily forgotten about; one can argue that this is because of their size and where they are in the city. Mary Le Bowe’s might be using the cafe to try to get more people into the church, while Clement Dane’s simply faded away. Either way, the people occupying the space around these two churches were almost completely unaware of their presence. Mary Le Bowe’s is a tiny little church wedged into a street; Clement Dane’s is in the middle of a busy highway and out of the way. These factors definitely contribute to the fact that they are less frequented by the public.

I won’t go into detail about Westminster Abbey (there’s a whole other blog post about that one- check it out!) but even though some of these buildings have fallen out of use to the public, they still contribute to the overwhelming presence of Christianity in London. These buildings perpetuate the dominance that Christianity has over Englishness.

A Stroll Around London: In the Style of “The London Scene”

Writing from my room in Bloomsbury and my room in New York

Postcards, t shirts and video games have shown me time and time again an artistic representation of Big Ben; I’d been in London a few days already, it was time for me to meet him. He is, based on his fame in the States, one of the most important faces of London, though I’ve heard that his face isn’t the most reliable, and taking the Tube for a visit was the least I could do to satisfy the inner tourist inside of me.

As I beheld this integral piece of Englishness in my eyes, I suddenly felt something against my hip. Glancing down, I catch a fleeting glimpse of a white hand grasping into my pocket, hoping to come up with something of value, perhaps my cell phone or wallet; thankfully it comes up empty, for my mother taught me well and I secure all of my important belongings in zippered compartments in my bag, which is held tightly against my side at all times . My eyes disinterestedly scan the crowd for the owner of the begging hand, knowing she or he is long gone, then make their way back to Ben. He stands completely unaware; my heart is pounding, beads of sweat have congregated around my hairline, my body feels violated. Yet his face hasn’t changed. Maybe it’s the distance, but I cannot make out the second hand on the clock. There is no evidence of change in the air, not even on the face that seems to see everything from his vantage point. The personal, almost-trauma of the last minute goes unnoticed by all. I lock my eyes onto the hands that are visible from where I stand, nod at Ben, and cross the street.

How could I have been so deaf, so blind? On the corner of the street I cross onto stands a man and his fiddle; the boisterous, playful music tickles my ears and rejuvenates my walk. Music is what brings me back, even if it only stays with me for a minute or two. The comfort of the notes seems to have spread to those around me. Everyone seems to have joined together, taken a simultaneous, deep breathe in, held it for a moment, then let the breath go and continue on their individual journey.

I must’ve been a bit preoccupied trying to absorb what just happened, for I practically missed Westminster Abbey. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t know exactly what to expect; Westminster Abbey is a bit less famous in the States. I’ve seen a photograph once or twice, but not enough to be familiar with it. Oh, there it is! Beautifully lush trees obstruct my view quite a bit, and that’s not the only thing keeping me from properly appreciating this piece of London; bells have begun to chime. I search the buildings around me to try to find the source, but the trees have kept me from the bells. Hoping to escape the cluttered streets around the abbey, I follow the group and walk under an archway.

Air: fresh and new, unlike the oxygen-depleted air the streets outside Westminster provided. Standing in a cluster of human beings to just stare at an old building seems to have made me a bit lightheaded. Thankfully, the English have found a cure for this proximity and provided the people with open spaces to replenish. A few moments of sitting on the grass make it easier to focus on my surroundings; neat buildings all connected surround me, not a single tourist from down the street, staring up at the abbey or Ben can be heard. But my mind can still not totally piece together everything I saw and experienced within the half a mile walk from the Tube station to my place on the grass. My pleasure and pride in London was not instilled by the buildings themselves, for those seemed to be detached and unaware of anybody coming to experience and appreciate the wonder that surrounds those historical, tourist ridden buildings. The London that struck me was the London that cared; I may be a mere American individual, having my existence acknowledged what I’m longing. Staring into the face of Ben, one only receives a blank, unfazed stare back: these immense structures of Englishness stand proud to be unaware of one’s minuscule existence.

Dead in Woolf’s Dalloway

Writing from my room in Bloomsbury

I hadn’t realized how strong the presence of the dead is in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway until I was asked to write a blog post about it specifically. Looking back through my notes in the margins, I’m shocked I missed it; countless quotes about death and the interaction between the living and the dead pop out throughout the text.

Death is quite prominent in of the most famous scenes in the novel, where everyone on the street is fascinated with the car passing by. People are struck by the thought of being in such close proximity of royalty:

Ordinary people who might now, for the first and last time, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting through ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust. (16)

Why with all the excitement of royalty and a celebrity around would thoughts of inevitable death and wasting away come up? This section defines Englishness in two distinct ways. The class divide between royalty and the others is prevalent here. Just the thought, the possibility of being near royalty, yet still separated by groups of people and a car from the possible royal, sets everyone’s heart aflame. It feels like an accomplishment to the people in the street, for they must’ve chosen the right time to go shopping to have been given this incredible opportunity (that again, no one will ever know if it actually was a person of importance or not). Expanding on this, there is a definite tie between death and nationalism.

While being instilled with this sense of importance and pride of being so close to the English royalty, the crowd is contemplating their own individual deaths. Historians will remember the royal sitting in the car that passes them by, but will not remember them. They will always be insignificant. Part of Englishness is the powerful and impressionable monarchy, and the commoners (the people in the street) will all be forgotten. The next pages reads that “strangers looked at each other, and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire” (17). The nationalism these people feel is tied directly to death. Englishness cannot be without royalty and death. Clarissa Dalloway has an interesting thought while walking around London, which was “Did it matter then, she asked herself…did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?” (9). Based on her reaction and everyone else’s reaction in the street, it seems that the proximity to the everlasting presence in history that the English royalty will have is enough to comfort the commoners in their inevitable meaningless death. As long as something with great importance lasted, their insignificant deaths were accepted. Nationalism and pride in their Englishness have given them this idea that death is necessary and they must accept it.

Nationalism and death play another role in the character of Septimus Smith, for it seems necessary that there be dead in order for there to be nationalism. By far one of my favorite characters in Dalloway, his role in Dalloway is tragic, and his path to suicide another place where I felt the presence of the dead in the novel. His view on the world is warped due to his experience fighting for the country; his pride in England led him to signing up to fight, but sadly it leads to his suicide. Though he suffered immensely to defend his country,”it was cowardly for a man to say he would kill himself,” even after doing something courageous for his country (22). Septimus is haunted by the dead, both with the idea of his own death and the ghost of Evans.  In the middle of the park, Septimus is convinced that he sees Evans, and exclaims “‘For God’s sake don’t come!’… For he could not look upon the dead,” and this passage ends with Septimus “smiling at the dead man in the grey suit” (68-69). His trauma has caused him to see the dead in his daily life, yet his individual condition must be silenced for the good of the England. Septimus has served what is defined as the only appropriate way to have pride for England: he put his life on the line in battle, but is not allowed to battle his own depression and suicidal thoughts publicly. Again, the life of the commoner, the individual, is irrelevant as long as Englishness is preserved. London is a “city of tombs” because in order for London and Englishness as a whole to continue to function, many have to die, whether it’s in war, by silencing their mental health issues, or just quietly for the sake of those in power.

Visiting Stonehenge, Just Like Tess

Initially writing from my room in Bloomsbury, but revisited in the library of my hometown.
(Pictures are mine! Please respect that and don’t use without permission). 

I must admit (though it pains me to say this) that before arriving in London for the study abroad program, I had no idea what Stonehenge actually was. Everyone would ask me “what are you doing while studying in London?!” and I’d brag that I was going to see Highgate Cemetery and see the sunrise at Stonehenge. People were impressed and envious, though I didn’t really understand why…Thankfully I got my shit together before leaving on the bus at 2 am. The significance of Stonehenge didn’t register with me until I physically began to approach the massive henge. There, the definition of the word sublime, “affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur” was fully understood. My body recognized the importance if the henge, for reasons I’ll explore at the end of this post. First things first: why visit Stonehenge alongside English literature?

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles’ penultimate chapter takes place in Stonehenge, and getting a chance to visually take in the landscape and think back to the text definitely influenced my understanding. Silvia Mergenthal, in her essay titled “The Architecture of the Devil’: Stonehenge, Englishness, English Fiction,” writes about Stonehenge, Tess, and what it all says about Englishness. What struck me is the connection Mergenthal draws between Stonehenge and the abbey. She states:

Stonehenge and the abbey are not so much contrasted to one another as superimposed one upon the other (and vice versa, as it were). As a result, Hardy’s novel blurs spatial and temporal boundaries—the latter with regard to both the (internal) chronology of the novel and the (external, that is, ‘real-life’) histories of the two sites…It is only retrospectively, that is, from the perspective of the Stonehenge chapter, that a pattern common to both scenes emerges beneath the ‘criss-cross’ surface arrangement of sleeping/waking, waking/sleeping: in both scenes, Tess finds herself within the confines of a sacred site in ruins, the one (the abbey) devoted to Christian, the other (Stonehenge) to pre-Christian sets of beliefs.

This layering and blurring of the lines Mergenthal mentions is something I’ve identified as being an integral part of Englishness. Throughout the entire weekend, we kept learning about another instance where a Pagan ritual or belief was Christianized (either subtly or overtly) and the end result is a mixture of both. Lines have been continuously blurred throughout the history of Englishness in order to achieve some greater sense or preserve the idea of Englishness. A wordy statement, but basically Hardy’s connection between the Christian abbey and the Pagan Stonehenge, when read today, brings to light both the similarities that exist between the two, and how throughout history they have overlapped. The Pagan henge is referred to as “the heathen temple,” and it’s important to remember that the term “heathen” is a derogatory term for one that doesn’t believe in the widely accepted religion, which in this case is Christianity. Paganism was Christianized in order to be accepted and reinforce the powerful notion of Englishness, and Hardy’s connection between the two subverts this.
Mergenthal takes this connection further when she writes that:

…as Hardy’s novel possesses an equally marked gender bias: Stonehenge seems to demonstrate – as does the abbey in which Tess is laid to rest in a stone coffin – that English religious and legal institutions across the centuries have been founded, not on (or for) the protection of the weak, but on (or for) their victimization.

Hardy’s writing of the abbey and Stonehenge exposes one of the flaws of Englishness and the role religion has; those that are already in power will stay in power, and those that are weak and powerless will be kept weak and powerless. Tess, born into a lower class family, has absolutely no luck in her life. She is a victim of sexual harassment in the beginning of the novel, is rejected by her husband when telling him the truth (while even though he committed the same act, he was allowed to roam free), finally gets justice by killing Alec but in the end is executed. The abbey and Stonehenge, both having religious significance, are places where the injustices Tess faces culminate. She is visibly weak in the henge, when Angel notices that “her breathing now was quick and small, like that of a lesser creature than a woman” and is handed over to her execution.

When we visited Stonehenge, there was a clear divide between those in power (the men working inside of the henge) and the protesters on the outskirts of the sight. Though I didn’t have the chance to converse with the protesters, I did have the opportunity to talk with one of the men securing the henge. He told me that the protesters believed that the henge should be open to the public because that’s how it was intended to be used. Simple as that. It was a religious place to begin with and it should be kept that way. Pagans are only allowed to have complete access to the site only on the summer solstice, which might seem like a liberty, but our tour guide told us that the other significant rituals or holidays throughout the year are celebrated at the other henge in Avebury. The people in power, presumably not Pagans, have decided which part of the religion is important and which part is not. Again we see how the weak are kept weak and powerless while the powerful continue to have all of the power. The workers talked of the protesters as if they were subhuman and completely obsolete, when their message has a point: why should only a select few be able to access the henge? Englishness seems to continuously be inscribed with this unequal distribution of power, both legally and socially.

I felt quite a sense of the sublime all throughout our hour in Stonehenge. The sheer height of the stones took my breathe away; walking up the steps and seeing this immense henge in the middle of nowhere was striking. It truly was overwhelming! The space made me feel powerful and significant, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s clear that the henge was built to fill you up with it’s importance, so you’d remember it. I’m extremely lucky to have been able to watch the sun rise over Stonehenge!

Transitioning Back Home

Writing from the plane to Newark

Transitioning back feels equally alien and effortless. My mind adjusted to the streets of Bloomsbury after a few days; the storefronts and people working inside of them began to look familiar, Connaught Hall began to be referenced as “home.” My body felt that it became part of the city. The ebb and flow of the traffic navigated me down and across the streets.

I’ve always been fascinated with cities and how you can walk around for hours and forget your identity. At the crosswalks, the ground tells you which way to look for oncoming traffic and the lights tell you to “WAIT,” the green man tells you when to go. Familiarity with the streets makes thinking about where to go or if you’ll get lost obsolete. One of the excursions we went on, the Mrs. Dalloway Walk, helped me understand Clarissa’s journey and just how far she traveled throughout the novel. Right in he beginning of the novel, Clarissa is walking down Piccadilly, where “she would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged,” and then later on,” did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?’ Throughout her she feels she embodies different ages and contemplates identity in the singular and the plural.  She passed by many areas that were filled with people (I’d say crowded, but that sounds like there were big clumps of people. In some places there were, but for the most part the areas were simply populated) which fascinated both Clarissa in the novel and myself during the walk. I identify with Clarissa because walking has been one of the ways I’ve dealt with my anxiety and general stress in the world, for it helps me escape unwanted thoughts and situations that I cannot handle. Walking in London allowed me to forget everything going on at home and let go of my identity, at least for a little while.

Now on the plane going home, my identity is becoming increasingly present. The anonymity London provided me with is slipping away as we get closer to Newark and the weight of my identity at home is returning. And as my identity begins to pressure me, the routine of my daily life at home runs through my thoughts. I contemplate whether or not I’ll be too jet lagged to wake up at my usual time of 9:30, did my mother remember to buy me a new gallon of 1% milk, should I throw in a load of laundry before my morning shower or after? Realizing that routine is consuming my thoughts during this transition, I make the connection to Henry Perowne in Saturday transitioning from watching a tragedy (having a life changing experience) to moving right back into the routine of daily life. Perowne watches a plane crash on its way to Heathrow airport and while contemplating the horror of the occurrence, begins to wonder if he will be called into work and has flashbacks of his previous week at work. Regardless of the incredible, traumatic experience in front of him, the monotonous routine of daily life takes over. We discussed how peculiar it is that Henry almost instantaneously considers his monotonous daily routine during and after the plane crash, but now I catch myself doing something similar. Granted, my mind is returning to the routine after an incredible journey, not a horrific plane crash, but the connection is still evident.

One of the main lessons I learned in London that has become evident during this transition is not directly tied back to the topic of the course, yet is still important. My mind and body almost instantly identified with London, from understanding the Tube to crossing the street, to being aware of various historical and modern sites and becoming one with the group. I won’t say that I became a true Londoner or fit in completely, but for a brief two weeks, my mind and body felt that I did. And now, how easily my self is transitioning back home isn’t that shocking based on how easily is transitioned to London. Maybe that’s how this all ties into transnational identities. I sort of feel at home in London and I sort of feel at home in Smithtown, New York. Why is that? What does that say about the spaces and how my mind and body occupied them? Possibly it has to do with the fact that cities definitely have some familiar qualities, maybe it’s because I could understand the language in both areas. I’m still working on understanding it though.