A Newfoundland writer tours London's museums of the weird and wonderful

Shawn Hayward
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Rika, a volunteer at the Cartoon Museum, leafs through one of the collection's thousands of comics.

Do old marble statues make you yawn? Does Renaissance art inspire you as much as drywall? London is full of museums, and if the more traditional artifacts found in the British Museum or National Portrait Gallery don't interest you, you may find what you're looking for among the city's lesser known and more surreal repositories for the past.

A good place to start for those looking to escape the ordinary would be the Wellcome Collection near Euston in central London. The museum was founded in 1932 by pharmacist and world traveller Sir Henry Wellcome to display the medical oddities he discovered around the world, a collection that includes shrunken heads, phallic amulets, and artificial limbs.

Interpreter Catherine Walker says one of the more attention-getting pieces is a well-preserved mummy that was kept intact by the dry mountainous climate of Peru.

"We didn't want to shy away from things that were unusual or pushed the boundaries of people's attitudes," she explains. "We did want to intrigue people, encourage curiosity, so we have objects of a sexual nature, we talk about death and things that push understanding about art, science, and medicine."

One piece that really pushes boundaries is "I Can't Help the Way I Feel," by John Isaacs. The sculpture depicts a morbidly obese person who has ballooned into a blob that can hardly be recognized as human. Walker explains the piece is more of a commentary on the human mind than the human body.

"It's like if you ever feel a feeling so strongly you feel as if it's taking you over," she says. "We get a lot of strong reactions. A lot of disgust, intrigue ... it gets people attention. People are drawn to it."

Travellers to London can find a more light-hearted break from the ordinary by visiting the Cartoon Museum, a small building not far from the British Library that depicts the evolution of British culture through cartoons from the 18th century to the present day. The building opened in 2006 and has since attracted 120,000 to 150,000 visitors according to curator Anita O'Brien.

The museum mainly focuses on British cartoons and many poke fun at leading politicians such as Margret Thatcher and Tony Blair. There are also comic books from decades past that people may remember from their childhood days. The museum attracts a wide mix of ages and nationalities, according to O'Brien.

The current exhibition features over 200 works by Steve Bell, a political cartoonist for British newspaper The Guardian. The left-wing ideals of Bell's paper reveal themselves in his work, especially the drawings of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron with a giant condom on his head.

"It takes awhile for a cartoonist to figure how to approach a politician," explains O'Brien. "He went to a [Conservative] party conference in person and noticed how smooth [Cameron's] skin was, almost like a baby, and he has a very domed forehead. It seemed to work for him."

The museum hosts cartoon workshops for children and adults so you too can illustrate your political stance through funny drawings

On the south bank of the River Thames you can find the Clink Prison Museum, an interactive collection which attempts to put you in the shoes, or shackles, of a convicted criminal in the 16th century. The museum is housed in a former warehouse dating back to Victorian times, but before that it was the location of The Clink, London's infamous prison that's name became a generic word to describe any place where criminals are locked away.

Today's Clink is more like a haunted house than a museum. Although it has a few cases of prison-related artifacts, its main draw is the chance to touch, hold, and even wear replicas of torture instruments used from medieval times to 1780 when the original prison burnt down.

Visitors can try on thumb screws, wear a mask designed to hold still the tongue of gossipy women, and drag around the famous ball and chain. They also have a chance to be photographed with their head on a chopping block like the one used to execute Anne Boleyn or their feet clamped in blocks next to the mannequin of a sad looking inmate.

"I think it's something quite visceral about the shock of the extreme," says Alex Lyon, a Clink tour guide, when asked why people are drawn to such a dark place. "Whether it's the extreme of yuck, violence, horror, or sex, it's something quite animal in us and I think it would be disingenuous to deny that. I think it's a very human thing to want to find out about extreme things that can happen."


Organizations: British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Cartoon Museum British Library Clink Prison Museum

Geographic location: London, Newfoundland, Euston Peru River Thames

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