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.

Highgate Cemetery, Heterotopias, and Urn Burialle

Michel Foucault’s essay, “Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias” specifically discusses cemeteries. Foucault writes how cemeteries are places where everything is juxtaposed, “since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery” and the living and the dead are gathered together, which makes it a heterotopia. Walking around Highgate Cemetery, it’s clear that everybody was dying to get in there (pun mercilessly intended); our tour guide  said that on a busy day, multiple people were being buried and the cemetery was quite noisy and lively. Ironic to call a cemetery lively, isn’t it? But that’s one of the reasons why Highgate is so interesting! It was created for the living just as much for the dead. The changes in what took place in a cemetery and where cemeteries are located speaks volumes to the changes in society. Foucault writes that “until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church…bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church.” The relationship between the dead and the living was dictated by religious belief: the body of the dead was meaningless, for it no longer housed the soul. Therefore the cemetery functioned almost solely for the living. People could gather, grieve and pray at the grave of the deceased. Society shifted from being mainly concerned with eternal existence through the soul to the mortal, corporeal existence:

Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language.

This shift feels a bit more contemporary, doesn’t it? I was shocked to hear that the Victorians used to bury families not side by side, but right on top of each other. Death became more individual and focused back to the dead in a sense. Something that struck me about the essay was Foucault’s mention of this shift to when “everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay” just as “cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities.” Death was not perceived as something more permanent, that one must go through alone, detached from the city. My family rarely visits the cemetery because it’s out of the way, almost inconvenient. The interaction with the dead has changed from visiting cemetery to dealing with the absence in a less physical way.

Sir Robert Browne’s “Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burialle” writes that some people felt differently about getting an individual place to decay. On the other side of the argument, some “conceived it most natural to end in fire, as due unto the master principle in the composition, according to the doctrine of Heraclitus; and therefore heaped up large piles, more actively to waft them toward that element, whereby they also declined a visible degeneration into worms, and left a lasting parcel of their composition.” Cremation makes it so that there is nothing but ashes for the living to mourn over, making the presence of a cemetery less important. This changes the connection between the living and the dead by physically lessening the connection. Cemeteries, such as Highgate, are created as a place to bury the dead, but also as a central gathering place for the living. The columbarium in the cemetery was microscopic compared to the graves present at every turn. Whether or not you or your loved ones are cremated, the dead influence our daily lives.