Friday, November 30, 2012

Figures in Wax

I decided to do just about the most touristy thing I could do in London-- and go to Madame Tussauds.  I haven't been to a wax museum since I was really young and my family went to the one in Niagra Falls-- and I really don't remember it, I just remember we went.  So, I booked my place for 1 pm and headed into London.

Since I arrived in London early, I started off my day doing something equally touristy, though a little more off-the-beaten-path-- I visited the Sherlock Holmes museum.  As you would expect, the Sherlock Holmes Museum is near the Baker Street Underground (which is where Madame Tussauds is located as well-- also part of why I chose to do both on the same day), but in case you're not sure you're in the right place, when you exit the station, you're greeted with this:

221B Baker Street is right around the corner (actually-- at the statue, you turn left for Madame Tussauds and right for the Sherlock Holmes Museum).

And, the door is guarded-- though I'm pretty sure I don't remember a guard in any of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

He's really there for crowd control-- the museum itself, as it's located in a fairly narrow house, can only hold a small group of people at a time.  There are three and a half floors to the museum (yes, there's a half floor).  The first floor (which is up a set of stairs, as the British would expect, but this makes it the second floor for Americans) has Holmes' study and bedroom.  The study is remarkably set up pretty much like I would imagine it from the books-- small, illuminated by two broad windows, and overlooking Baker Street.

It contains all the artifacts like his violin,

Watson and Holmes' hats and a magnifying glass, all in front of a cozy fire

and, even Holmes opium pipe.

His bedroom is a bit more sparse and not quite as cozy

There are "maids" around to ask about the house-- what's funny about this is that people often ask questions about Holmes and Watson as though they are real people. For example, the maid on duty that day said that people often ask her if that's the actual bed Holmes slept on. (She's supposed to say yes, but said she can't quite bring herself to do it.  I personally would-- if people don't know that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character and not a real person, I think they deserve to be messed with.)  It does make me wonder if those who think Holmes was a real person leave the museum even certain, thinking they have seen the real artifacts from his life.

The second floor of the museum is Dr. Watson's bedroom

and Mrs. Hudson's (the landlady) bedroom.

It's also as the stories and books describe-- located near each other with Watson's room overlooking the rear of the house.  The best part of Mrs. Hudson's room is the voodoo mummy in the corner.

I don't really remember anything about voodoo in the Sherlock Holmes stories... but I have to admit that I'm not even close to being a Holmes expert.  The pamphlet the museum gives out describes three kinds of visitors to the museum: those who have heard of him (maybe seen a movie or two), those who know a great deal (read most of the stories, seen all the movies-- all versions), and those who are experts. I'm somewhere between the first and second.  (Given that the pamphlet does mention Arthur Conan Doyle and all the ways in which the fictional Holmes has materialized, you would think visitors would pick up in the fact that he's not real... but maybe some people don't read their pamphlet?)

The page boy is set at the bottom of the stairs to the third floor, ready to run and do errands for Holmes.

He's the introduction to the last full floor of the museum which contain representations of characters from the stories.  This is also a nice preview to Madame Tussauds-- a mini wax figure exhibition before the big one.  (I'm pretty sure these are Tussaud created figures, but I'm not positive-- it didn't say anywhere.)

There are some great representations, like the man with the twisted lip,

Irene Adler with the King of Bohemia,

Sherlock and Watson finding a tomb with a mummy,

and, even Reginald Musgrave peering in through the ceiling, looking at Brunton (the butler) below.


There is also this guy.

He's real.  He sits in that chair, barely awake and every once in a while he wakes up and turns the crank on the box located next to him.  In the box is a scene from The Hound of the Baskervilles. Not much happens; a few light are illuminated in the box to show the scene and after he turns the crank for about fifteen seconds, there is the brief sound of a dog barking.  He says, "the hound of the Baskervilles" after the barking and then goes back to sleep for a few more minutes until a new group enters and he goes through the demonstration again.  I want his job one day.

This room also has letters to Sherlock Holmes, most of which are from school children.  They come from around the world and most treat Holmes like a real person, often asking him to write back. A few writers, however, do at least seem to know that Holmes can't write about and acknowledge the futility, if not necessarily for the right reason.  This was my favorite letter:

I just really like that it's addressed to Mr. Dead Sherlock Holmes (as well as the post script re-emphasizing how stupid the writer feels since someone dead and buried clearly won't be getting the letter).

The final room of the tour is about five steps up-- into the washroom.

where there is also a glass-encased owl which is more reminiscent of Harry Potter than Sherlock Holmes, but maybe there is an owl in one of the stories and it's just that pop culture has made me associate an owl more with Hedwig.

From the fictional world of Holmes, I was off to mingle with real celebrities at Madame Tussauds.  I arrived earlier than my booked time, but they let me in anyway-- the middle of the week in late November is a great time to go if you don't want to compete with the masses for the attention of the Hollywood glitterati. 

You enter Madame Tussauds and go up the elevator straight into the Hollywood Oscar party to have drinks with George Clooney

or Santa, who for some reason is in this section.

It may be the one place where Santa is least popular--this was the one guy no one seemed to be taking pictures with.  Hollywood continues actors dressed from movie scenes-- starting with Bollywood.

I have no idea who any of these people are-- but they seemed quite popular.  I knew who everyone else was, though.  Liza,

Arnold and Bruce,

Robert Downey Jr. (continuing my Sherlock Holmes theme),

and Marilyn.

I even got to have breakfast with Audrey.

Directors get to have their moments to.  Steven Spielberg is on set

though for some reason, Alfred Hitchcock is just hanging out in the stairwell.

From movies, you move to sports.  The world of sports at Madame Tussauds is largely dominated by footballers-- and, by that I mean soccer players (there were no NFL players).  I didn't recognize a lot of the figures there, but I did know Rafa (the only current tennis player with a wax figure on display which surprised me. No Roger Federer? No Andy Murray?)

and Tom Daly (who is disappointingly difficult to take a picture with since he's diving from quite high up_

I was back on better known terrain as I moved from sports to well-known historical and current celebrities.  There were kings and queens from all times represented.

This is where I realized I was woefully under-dressed-- who wears jeans and sneakers to meet the Queen and the rest of the Royals?  I should have thought about this before I set out on my day (rather than thinking about all the walking I would be doing... which is often my main concern).

There is also royalty from the world of science like Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking.

There's one writer, Oscar Wilde.

And, of course, pop star royalty like The Beatles,


and Lady Gaga (with Jimi Hendrix in the background, which says something about our cultural priorities, but I'm not sure what).

There are also superstars of the political world including those who have fought for peace and tolerance

and this incredibly controversial scene of Churchill and Hitler.

There are those who want the image of Hitler removed, largely because people like to photograph themselves next to him with their fists outstretched saying "hail Hitler" (in fact, I watched one Japanese woman do just that) and many find that offensive.  But, it remains.

When finished with celebrity and fame, you move to the Chamber of Horrors which has wax creations at the entrance

but which is mostly live actors jumping around corners to scare you.  There's no photography allowed in this area, and really, it would be too dark to take any pictures. (There was also a montage of Guy Fawkes being hanged at the entrance, but even with flash, it was too dark to get a good shot.)

After the Chamber of Horrors, there is the Marvel Comics display with characters like the Hulk

and Wolverine, who is clearly now Hugh Jackman with long fingernails.

This section also includes a 4-D movie of Spiderman, Captain America, the Hulk, and Ironman saving London from a giant robot.  It's cute. 

There's also the Spirit of London, which is a ride in "taxis" through the history of England.  It's also hard to photograph because the lighting isn't good and the car keeps moving, but I did manage to snap a shot of William Shakespeare.

The final section of Madame Tussauds is a small display providing the history of Tussaud and the wax museum and an explanation of how the figures are made, demonstrated through the making of Beyonce's wax figure.  There is a display of Madame Tussaud and her family

though after hearing how precise the measurements have to be to make a wax figure, I'm not sure how accurate these are. Then again, maybe Madame Tussaud did take her family's details down.

Madame Tussauds didn't take as long as I was expecting (I don't know why I thought it would be almost a half-day event. Maybe because the tickets to get in are so expensive.  But, it really only takes an hour and a half, though I'm betting it takes a lot longer when it's crowded.) so I decided to use the rest of my afternoon go see the Imperial War Museum which I've been meaning to visit but never quite get to.

The exterior of the museum is quite pretty (and yes, those are clear skies you're seeing.  It's the first time I'd seen the sun in more than a week. If it hadn't been so cold, I would have spent more time outside.)

The museum itself is set around a large atrium.  There's actually quite a bit of open space in the museum which makes it great for hanging airplanes.

There is an exhibition on the current war in Afghanistan and Iraq; it's mostly sound and video. You can select the picture of a soldier and he'll talk about things like food, free time, life in a war zone, and life after becoming a civilian again.  There is also a section of the museum dedicated to the Secret War which is the story of MI5, MI6 and secret military operations.   There are a lot of gadgets on display like bugs

and cipher  equipment.

There is also an interactive computer that allows you to read about caught spies and declassified missions, though I'm guessing a lot of the information is still missing from the files that are available to read. Either that, or the British files are incredibly concise.

There is also an exhibit on the Holocaust-- it's very hard to photograph because it's quite dark.  I did find this display interesting-- it's near the beginning and shows items related to Judiasim with an explanation of what everything is and what it's used for.

There seems to be a tacit assumption that many who go through the exhibit have no idea what Judaism really is.

The exhibition starts at the time between WWI and WWII and briefly shows the Jews living peacefully and happily before cataloging Hitler's rise, the persecution of the Jews, the development of the ghettos and finally the move to concentration camps.  The last room is about the freeing of the prisoners and life after the concentration camps and it's actually possible to move from the rise of Hitler and persecution to this last room, skipping the most disturbing and graphic parts of the tour.  I'm guessing those who installed the exhibition thought that some of the scenes of the concentration camps (which do include photos of naked, emaciated prisoners and the death pits) would be too much for some visitor.  There is a sign before the entrance saying that material is not suited for those under the age of 14 which I found interesting because I distinctly remember being shown films on the Holocaust when I was in Hebrew school-- and I quit right after my Bat Mitzvah, which means I was seeing those films quite early.  And, I remember them as much more graphic (maybe because they were film rather than still photos which brought the horror even more to life) than the exhibition at the Imperial War Museum was.  But, maybe it is good to spare kids from those images for longer.  I know I wasn't nearly as shocked (or, really even shocked-- really saddened, but not surprised at all) as others who were going through the exhibition.  It's interesting to watch the reactions of people who are being shown the realities of the Holocaust for the first time-- I'm so far removed from that first experience that I guess I don't realize that there are people who haven't been exposed (and, surprisingly, a lot of older adults. I was by far the youngest person there).

I didn't really want to end my day in London on that kind of sad note, so from the Imperial War Museum, I headed to Oxford Circus to window shop.  Oxford Circus is all lit up for Christmas-- there are light displays all over including an elaborate one of the 12 days of Christmas.

(It's hard to tell, but that's the second day of Christmas with two doves.)  There are less traditional displays too, like the ones that surround Carnaby Street.

I didn't want to get back on the coach to Oxford without a snack since it can be a long ride in rush hour, so I stopped of at the Sacred Cafe for tea and scones. 

Sacred now wins for the best tea pot I've been served tea in.

And, actually, it's pretty up there for scone quality as well-- there were hot, which is always a bonus.

I wandered around Oxford Circus for a little while longer, window shopping in places like Irregular Choices which has the best weird shoes ever.

I was really tempted to try some on, though I have no idea where I would wear them and I wasn't sure I could even pretend I was actually going to buy a pair.  Like with meeting the Royals, I was inappropriately dressed to look like a serious customer for this store.  I also walked around Liberty Royal, a fancy department store, admiring the window displays.

And, then headed back to the Underground station, passing the Apple store on the way which is only notable because it's two floors and it was packed. And, because in England, Apple stores look like this:

I was ready to head home, but the Oxford Circus Underground was gated off due to overcrowding which just caused there to be crowding on the sidewalks as those wanting to get on the tube crowded near the stairwell. There are entries to the station on all four corners and all four were a mob scene of irritated commuters.  I was about to head off to another tube station (Bond Street) and try to figure out how to maneuver from there when the gates opened again which made life a little easier since Oxford Circus is only two stops from where I needed to be which is really good because as I exited into Victoria Station, there was an announcement that the Circle line was closing and the Victoria line would be delayed "due to a person under a train."  Again (this is the second time in two months I've been in London when this has happened.).  Maybe this is why the Brits are so nonchalant-- it seems to be a more common occurrence than I would have thought possible.  So, rather than be alarmed this time, I pushed my way into the throngs trying to get out of the station and headed to the coach to go back to Oxford. 

I'm not sure if this is my last foray into London or not as I have less than a month left on this experience.  But, the tube experience almost makes a perfect bookend for my travels to that city...

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