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Back in July last year, I kicked off this blog with a post about Louis Blériot’s historic crossing of the English Channel a century ago. Blériot’s journey is rightly considered a momentous event in aviation history, but it wasn’t the first flight across. That happened 225 years ago this week. Whilst Blériot had a powered, heavier-than-air craft, on 7 January 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries were the first people to cross the Channel in a balloon. This is a wonderful pair of […]

It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow, and I’ll be off to the homestead in South Shields for a few days of rest, reading and relaxation. But I’ve got to get there first. Here’s how I imagine my journey will pan out: It’s an early start at King’s Cross station… …before I clamber aboard my fast train heading north on the east coast main line. With luck, I’ll arrive into the glorious Newcastle Central station three hours later… …and onwards to South Shields, where I […]

The wonderful caricature of a windswept midwife by Thomas Rowlandson in my last post got me browsing through other prints by this famous artist. They’re a great window into the past. The caption of this one states, ‘Lose their compass, their ship slips between the teeth of a fish unknown in this part of the world’. Not what you want to happen, really, when out for a sail. It was one of Rowlandson’s wonderful images to accompany the tall tales […]

Having written last week about my singular inability to ice-skate, my eye was drawn today to this poster in the National Railway Museum’s collection: The caption reads ‘Watch your step on our platforms this winter… Leave the skating to the profesionals’. Wise words. Having said that, if I saw a briefcase-carrying penguin skating along the platforms at London Bridge station, I think slips and falls would be the last things on my mind…

Museum objects are not always what they seem, as this intriguing embroidery – currently on display in our Cosmos & Culture exhibition  – shows. The label on the frame says that it shows an astrologer forecasting the birth of a child to King Charles I and his Queen, Henrietta Maria. It’s also been suggested that the face rising from the frames is a tad beardy for a newborn and that the scene may forecast Charles’s execution. The astrologer is surrounded […]

November 2 is the Day of the Dead, a colourful Mexican festival where people remember friends and family members who have died. A perfect day to have a look at some of our objects which represent the dead … First off there are death masks, used both to commemorate the famous and the criminal. This death mask of Benjamin Disraeli was taken six hours after he died in 1881. We’ve also got some slightly gruesome anatomical models:  Such models would normally be made as educational tools, but […]

I’m just back from a conference in Dresden. The Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, home to the wonderful transparent man (and woman), hosted a conference looking at wax moulages. Moulages are based on casts taken directly from patients, which are then moulded in wax to present case studies of particular diseases, especially dermatological conditions. Each one has its own medical and cultural story to tell, at once a medical specimen, an individual’s history as a patient, and cultural artefact.   These examples are from […]

Before people used chronometers for maritime navigation there was another way. It was called the lunar-distance method, or ‘taking a lunar’: This was all about observing the moon’s position at night compared to certain reference stars, and then doing a whole lot of arithmetic. The key gadget was the sextant, which measured angular distance. Here’s one from our extensive collection: Using the moon to help solve an earthly problem led to countless lives being saved at sea and, indirectly, to the huge changes […]

I spent last Saturday in the Roundhouse, London. In the 1840s and 1850s it was a locomotive storage shed for the London and Birmingham Railway, and it’s now an arts venue. I was there for the first live performance of Jem Finer’s ‘Longplayer‘, a piece of music designed to play without repeating for 1,000 years. It’s normally computer-generated, and has been playing since 31 December 1999, but Saturday saw 1,000 minutes (nearly 17 hours) of it played live. It was remarkable (not […]

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