The mystery of the Thames Crosses!

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It was one of those ridiculously hot summer days when London feels like an oven. It sensible (and cooler) to wander down beside the Thames rather than above it so I walked along the Thames foreshore from Waterloo Bridge to the Founder’s Arms Pub, just beyond Blackfriars Bridge.

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The first cross I spotted

I noticed what looked like a cross attached to river embankment.  It was about 6 feet up and about 12 inches long. The metal had oxidized and rusted and there were some swirls and lines carved into the main part of the crucifix. I took a quick photo and was about to wander off again when a woman approached me. We got chatting and she said she was a mudlark who regularly patrols this part of the foreshore but she’d never noticed the cross before.

It was then I spotted another metal cruciform shape a few meters along, and then another and another. There was no indication of what they were, who had installed them or how long they’d been there. They were all a similar size and at a similar height. Some like those above had quite intricate detail evident when you look closely, When the tide is fully in I think they are submerged beneath the Thames.

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If you look closely you can see the detail of a man’s head near the top.

Between Waterloo and Blackfriars I saw about a dozen – some much more ornate than others, some obviously made from found objects – in one a scissors has been used to make part of the cross.

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A scissors

I was curious about why they were there, who had put them there, when they were placed there and why they’d were all in the shape of a cross. Someone (or group of people) has gone to a lot of trouble to make them and place them all along the foreshore.  Are memorials for people who had drowned, do they have particular religious symbolism? Surely Google would have an immediate answer. It seemed not. If they are memorials then it seems strange that nobody had publicised them, but there was nothing (or at least nothing I could find) so I took to Twitter.

Twitter gets a bad press, but when it works it’s wonderful. Over the course of the last few days I’ve had all sorts of lovely interactions with people who are just as interested in these as I am. Two people said that they’d spotted similar crosses at other parts of the foreshore – at Pimlico and Vauxhall (on opposite sides of the river). One of those near Pimlico looks as if it’s made from two teaspoons and a kebab skewer.

It was suggested that the ‘Secret Rivers’ exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands might have some information. If anyone does go and discovers something about these artworks do let me know.

I’ve had all sorts suggestions as to what they represent – perhaps they are memorials to people who drowned in the Thames, perhaps they’re some form of Pilgrim crosses, or memorials to those transported from Millbank Prison (where Tate Britain now stands). My friend Ciaran suggested it was the work of the Illuminati and the Vatican Mafia – I’m hoping he’s wrong, for if he’s not my days may be numbered!

They may well be memorials, but very often the point of a memorial is make sure someone is remembered so it’s unusual that there are no names. It’s possible that these are not related to each other, but I think there are too many similarities for that to be the case. Perhaps the person who made these is no longer alive and left no digital footprint. I really have no idea.

Several people has suggested that the crosses may be part of an public art project by Sebastian H-W who has led ‘Mudlark Walks: Flotstam Talismans’ (and is doing so again in September – if you are able to go along please do and see if the mystery can be solved!)

I’ve searched online and can’t find any examples of the talismans that are made in these workshops and the information on previous Mudlark Walks suggests that people can take home, return to the Thames or give away whatever they make. The crosses on the foreshore seem a more deliberate and organised display than this suggests, but who knows (someone I hope!) While the crosses seem made, at least in part, from found objects the detail in some suggest that a lot of time was spent planning and then executing them. If the work is being created by Sebastian H-W then it seems unlikely that it’s part of the Totally Thames events.

Thanks to everyone who has been in touch with information, suggestions and links. I’m glad it’s not jut me that’s fascinated by these fascinating artworks and if anyone can shed light on this mystery please let me know!

Maybe I’ll never discover why these crosses were made and installed. But it’s a reminder to keep looking around, a reminder to take my eyes off my phone and stop racing to get somewhere, a reminder that everywhere has something intriguing if I keep looking for it.

 

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Exhibition as Theme Park: Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern

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Room for One Colour

I went to see the Olafur Eliasson exhibition ‘In Real Life’ at Tate Modern. I first saw Eliasson’s work in 2003 when his ‘Weather Project’ was in the Tate’s cavernous Turbine Hall. This new exhibition is spread throughout thirteen rooms in the new Blavatnik building, the extension that opened in 2016. There are also a handful of exhibits outside the main exhibition – the most interesting being ‘Room For One Colour’ which casts an unhealthy orange glow over all those waiting for the lifts to take them to the viewing platform at the top of the Blatavnik building.

There is much to love about ‘In Real Life’ but the experience was rather ruined by one of the big problems associated with major exhibitions – too many people. It’s a timed-entry exhibition, but even with that the Tate are allowing too many people in. It felt a bit like going to a theme park where you have to queue to get in and once inside you then have to queue for every ride. At one point the queue to experience ‘Your Blind Passenger’ snaked through four rooms of the exhibition and it took over 30 minutes to the entrance of the experience. The one minute experience of moving through a peasouper or a dense cloud is disorientating and wonderful. Visibility is restricted to about a metre and as you walk cautiously through the fog new colours appear and figures become briefly visible. It’s a brief bubble where the senses are confused by the syrupy smell, the changing light & the occasional accidental brushing up against a stranger you never really see. When you’re disgorged from the tunnel of cloud into a room full of reflecting surfaces like a  kaleidoscope it takes a few moments to reorient yourself in what passes for the real world. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland.

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Your Blind Passenger

At ‘Your Spiral View’ parents were encouraging their children to do handstands and forward rolls through the mirrored spiral as if the exhibition was an extension of a playground. Adults stood and waited and waited and waited until it became clear that the children had no intention of leaving the spiral (and their parents had no intention of asking them to). Eventually most of the adults wandered off to join yet another queue.

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In Real Life

‘Your Uncertain Shadow’ projects the shadows of visitors onto a large wall in five pastel colours. It’s impressive (and somewhat reminiscient of 1970s album covers, or the opening sequence of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’) but the room was so packed that several times the lights were almost entirely blocked so nothing was being projected onto the wall.

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Your Uncertain Shadow

And at ‘Big Bang Fountain’ (after yet another queue) we were eventually ushered behind a thick black curtain into a completely dark room where everyone stood awkwardly a light mist settling on their skin as a strobe light illuminated water sculptures that appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye. It was mesmeric, but ruined by the woman who (despite all visitors being told repeatedly that photography was forbidden) not only took photographs, but turned on the torch on her phone meaning that everyone got to see how the illusion was created. No one wants to know how the magician does his tricks and for the first time in a long time I saw usually polite Londoners take the, rather less than polite, photographer to task.

I’m not sure what galleries and museums can do to ensure that everyone who wants to see an exhibition can see it (though the £20 entry fee already excludes many who might want to go). Exhibitions cost a lot to put on and money needs to be made to recoup some of the costs, but increasingly this is at the expense of the experience. The overcrowding at the ‘In Real Life’ exhibition was the worst I’ve experienced in a long time and exacerbated by the fact that within the exhibition numbers to many exhibits were also restricted, but the recent Don McCullin photography exhibition at Tate Britain was almost as bad with people jostling each other just to get a look at one of his photographs. Something ought to be done whether that is extending opening hours, extending exhibition running times or reducing the number of tickets available. I’m sure I’m not the only disgruntled visitor, but I guess there would need to be many thousands of us before there’s any need for galleries and museums to take action, and if we stop going to see the shows then I guess that means more room for those who do go!

I had taken a few days off to get away from my Dark Tourism travels to try to stop thinking about museums, galleries and heritage sites…in that I failed miserably! Next time I’m going to sit on a beach for a week and read books!

 

Visiting Museums – my personal bugbears!

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I’ve been on the road again visiting museums and heritage sites around Ireland. For the most part I’ve loved it. I learnt a lot and met many interesting people along the way. But I’ve also noticed that there are many things that could be done better and while there are specific things that could be improved at individual sites there are also a number of things that repeatedly drive me mad – things that could be fixed without any great investment of time or money.

I’m in the process of drawing up a list of things that have a negative impact on the visitor experience (and suggest some things that are easy (and cheap) to do that might save other visitors the irritation I’ve felt). This is just a start…I’ll have lots more to say when I go through my notes, but if anyone has suggestions of things to add to my list – things that drive them mad, or examples of where things have been done really well, please drop me a line and and I’ll include them.

To start here’s a few that immediately spring to mind:

List the correct opening days and opening hours on your website. There’s nothing worse than driving for hours to get to a site only to find that it’s closed when the website said it would be open. In some instances I’ve found sites that have different opening hours listed on different (official) sites. On one occasion I rang the site the day before I wanted to visit and was told that the last tour was at 4.00pm so we turned up at 3.30 only to discover that the last tour had already left.

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A padlocked door – never a good sign during supposed ‘opening hours’

Don’t spend lots of money on technology. It’s expensive, prone to breaking down and difficult to get fixed. It also goes out of date almost as soon as it’s installed. I can think of only one site I’ve visited where all the technology has been working when I’ve been there. There are occasions when it’s great and enhances the experience, but so often it really is a waste of money.

Be friendly and welcoming. In most cases those at reception and tickets desks are very friendly and helpful, but not always and a grumpy or sullen ‘welcome’ really does impact on the rest of the visit. More than once I’ve waited to buy tickets while the person behind the desk has continued a lengthy (and clearly personal) telephone call. On one very recent visit the man at the ticket desk never once looked at me or spoke to me while he took my money and begrudgingly handed me a receipt.

Death by Text. Many museums have an enormous number of panels stuffed full of information. No one will ever read all of them. And in rooms full of them many people will read none of them. Keep it short and sweet and direct visitors to books about the topics that the interested visitor can buy instead.

Less is More. Don’t put all your artefacts on display. Curate them, rotate them. Tell interesting stories about the ones that are there. Visitors will remember those stories, and they’ll come back to hear new ones when the displays change.

Tell memorable stories. I want to know about the buildings and the architectural detail can be fascinating, but I also want to know about the people who lived in these buildings. Too often I learn about the bricks and mortar, the naves and architraves, the mullions and machicolations without any proper explanation of what they are or why they’re there. Often I learn nothing about the people associated with these places. Frequently I bring children with me on these trips and the language used is often not appropriate – what 12 year old knows what a machicolation or a mullion is. Complex things can be explained using simple language.

But it is mostly good news. There are some brilliant things being done in museums and heritage sites across the country and I will write up a post about some of the best places I’ve visited recently when I’ve got over my irritation about driving for several hours to visit a site only for find it closed for a a private function!

In search of misery…please help!

Over the next few months I’ll complete my tour of misery in Ireland (and hopefully complete my jigsaw). Most of the trips have been far from miserable, but I have sought out tales of suffering, misery and hardship as told through our museums and heritage sites. I’ve traveled thousands of kilometers up, down and across the country to see how sites tell the stories of conflict, starvation, emigration and death.

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So far I’ve visited twenty-three counties and I’ve another four counties – Kerry, Clare, Offaly and Fermanagh to visit over the next few weeks.

However, there are five counties where I currently have no sites to see – Cavan, Longford, Leitrim, Armagh and Kildare (and only one site in Clare). I’d like to be able to include all thirty-two counties in the book so if anyone has any suggestions of places to visit in those counties please let me know.

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The key criteria is that there has to be some interpretation associated with the site – a memorial, statue or plaque isn’t sufficient (though I do stop by any that I happen to be passing). Ideally, the museum or heritage site should have some connection with the stories that it tells – places such as Wicklow Gaol, the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna, the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross where the site is crucial to the visitor experience are ideal, but I’ll go anywhere that tells a story associated with a place rather than a generic story of the famine in Ireland – anything to get that jigsaw finished!

If anyone has suggestions for places I might visit please let me know via here, or twitter (@gillianmobrien) or email: g.p.obrien@ljmu.ac.uk.

“One of the ghastliest and most curious crimes”: The Murder of Dr Cronin – 4 May 1889

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Today is the 130th anniversary of the murder of Dr Patrick Cronin. On 4 May 1889 an anxious young man ran in a doctor’s surgery in north Chicago. He was agitated and desperate for help. A man had been seriously injured and needed immediate attention. The doctor packed his medical case, hopped into a waiting carriage and was never seen alive again.
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A Soapbox

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I was busy standing on two of my many soapboxes last week – this time in relation to teaching history in schools and exhibitions in museums.

Draft Report on Junior Cycle History

 

This morning RTE reported on a leaked document from the NCCA which is currently considering the place of History in the Junior Cycle. Continue reading

Ireland’s Institutional Shame

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Home Babies – (A)dressing Our Hidden Truth by Alison Lowry

(A)dressing Our Hidden Truths is an exhibition of work by Alison Lowry. It’s on at the National Museum in Collins’ Barracks, Dublin from March 2019 to May 2020. Continue reading

The Year they Cancelled St Patrick’s Day

I wrote this a while ago for History News Network and Time.com:

The Year They Cancelled St. Patrick’s Day

Gillian O’Brien is a senior lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University and the author of “Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago” (Chicago, 2015). Follow her on Twitter @gillianmobrien or her personal blog: gillianmobrien@wordpress.com

Related Link HNN Hot Topic:  St. Patrick’s Day 

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Today Saint Patrick’s Day is a broadly inclusive festival associated with fun, frivolity and, in Chicago, turning the river green.  Chicago’s first Saint Patrick’s Day parade took place in 1843 when the city was a mere six years old and the population about 8,000. By 1890, Chicago’s population had swollen to over one million and 17 percent of the city (or almost 180,000 people) were either Irish-born or had one parent born in Ireland.
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