Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 3 – the National Library of Norway

National Library of Norway

National Library of Norway

Getting closer and closer to Amundsen!!!!

I was given the privilege of taking a close look at some of the holdings of the National Library of Norway. I have a long standing interest in the Polheim – which was the tent structure that Amundsen erected at the South Pole when he and his team successfully achieved the pole for the first time in human history.  The Polheim is an inspiration and central focus for some of my own current research and artwork and I wanted to learn more about its origins and history. The Polheim was one of several tents that were constructed aboard his ship Fram as they voyaged south, it was  smaller and of a different fabric to the other expedition tents. It was based on a prototype that had been developed with his expedition mate, the explorer Frederick Cook (soon to be discredited following his disputed claim to the North Pole) on board the Belgica during the Belgian Antarctic Expidition of 1897-1901 (when Amundsen was 25). This was the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica and one of the several arenas in which Amundsen honed his skills and tool set, which he used with apparent efficiency and even pleasure on his trip to the South Pole in 1911.

The Belgica anchored at Mount William.

The Belgica anchored at Mount William.

When I made enquiries with a friend and expert on the cinema of Polar exploration Jan Anders Diesen about the development of the Polheim, he introduced me to Anne Melgård, the very helpful curator of the manuscripts collection at the National Library of Norway. She told me that they had Amundsen’s original notebooks from the Belgica voyage together with a very neat, hand-drawn design for the polar tent penned by Amundsen. Oslo immediately became a key location for my research!

Anne and her colleague Guro Tangvald agreed to meet with me and to curate a selection from their manuscript holdings which they thought might be of interest – recent published books, image archives which included postcards and other printed materials and notebooks and other handwritten materials. I had no idea what a delightful rabbit hole I was about to plunge into!

Firstly, I meandered through several recent books that were relevant to my topic, including the beautifully illustrated Race to the End by Ross MacPhee, published by the American Museum of Natural History. Which included the following tantalizing image.  The fragments of cloth overlaid resemble a map of the ice! Here I was looking for tangible evidence of the Polheim; souvenirs of it sampled by the very next (and last) group of humans who found it! Anne Melgård subsequently informed me that the fragments are in the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

Fragments of silk torn from the Polheim's seams by  Dr. Edward 'Bill' Wilson.

Fragments of silk torn from the Polheim’s seams by Dr. Edward ‘Bill’ Wilson.

The rest of the Polheim is now ‘lost’, buried under meters of ice somewhere near the South Pole, having drifted along with the ice from its original position a hundred years ago. There has been speculation and calculation trying to locate the Polheim but it is essentially unrecoverable – perhaps it will be imaged in a deep ice scan in years to come.

There were lots of wonderful photos in the Library’s archive. Including this gem of crew members whittling and spinning yarns on deck on their way South on Fram.

Polar whittling!

Polar whittling!

And delightful postcards!

Thorof Holmboe, 1915 Offset lithograph postcard.

Thorolf Holmboe, 1915
Offset lithograph postcard.

And yes, the hand-drawn design for the Polheim as developed on the Belgica.

Amundsen's tent patterns as used for the Polheim.

Amundsen’s tent pattern as used for the Polheim.

But wait!! There was more!!

There were the haunting images of Amundsen’s joyous team at the Pole. And the tragic ones of Scott’s party disappointed at the Pole a month later when they discovered that all of their effort and suffering had been for naught. The hardest part of their struggle lay ahead – a struggle none of them would survive.

Scott's disappointed party.

Scott’s disappointed party.

The B-side

The B-side

Then there were the original hand written journals in Amundsen’s impeccable, meticulous, tiny hand. Initially written in ink and later in perfectly sharp pencil. I can hardly imagine sharpening a pencil in the conditions they were working in, let alone everything else that they achieved. Accompanying the journals were the data books which record the readings and calculations to precisely locate the pole.

Amundsen's journal on the day they achieved the South Pole

Amundsen’s journal on the day they achieved the South Pole

Polar calculations and determinations.

Polar calculations and determinations.

But perhaps the most surprising and emotional documents in the archive was this single piece of paper!!

Amundsen's letter to King Haakon VII

Amundsen’s letter to King Haakon VII

I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my own hands. Amundsen wrote this letter to King Haakon after he had determined his location at the Pole and had ensured that he had definitely encompassed the Pole in a grid that he had his men laid out on the ice. It was the official notification of his discovery of the Pole. He left it in the Polheim along with other articles in the hope that Scott’s expedition would discover it and be able to return with it to Europe. In case Amundsen and his party were lost on the return route their discovery would live on. Ironically perhaps, Scott took the letter with him and it was Scott’s party that never returned to Europe. The letter was discovered along with the bodies of Scott and his companions 8 months later when their final camp was found. It was extraordinary to hold this piece of paper printed with the Fram Expedition letterhead that Amundsen had carried to the Pole, left behind in the Polheim for Scott, who in turn carried it back close to the edge of the Antarctic continent, where it lay beside his frozen body for months before being recovered and finally returned to Norway.

I am one of those people who feel that history gets inscribed on the things we use. Not that there is any totemic force at play, so much as a deep cultural overlay that gives some objects extraordinary value! I have only encountered one or two objects like that first hand.

Many thanks to Jan Anders Diesen, Anne Melgård,  Guro Tangvald and the staff at the National Library of Norway for guiding me to and allowing me to handle these irreplaceable documents.

Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 2 – the ‘Fram’

The next stop on my museum tour and in my hunt for Roald Amundsen was the Fram Museum.

Set right on the water on the outskirts of Oslo, the museum was built around the wonderful vessel Fram. As Amundsen is an icon of Polar exploration so is Fram. It’s not just a vessel, it’s a character in its own right!

Fram (“Forward”) was used in  both the Arctic and Antarctic regions between 1893 and 1912 by a series of Norwegian explorers including Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup, Oscar Wistig and Roald Amundsen. It was designed and built by the Norwegian shipwright Colin Archer for Fridtjof Nansen’s 1893 Arctic expedition in which Fram was supposed to freeze into the Arctic ice sheet and float with it over the North Pole. Fram has sailed farther north (85°57’N) and farther south (78°41’S) than any other wooden ship

The entire Fram is jammed into the museum!

The entire Fram is jammed into the museum!

She is as a three masted schooner with a total length of 39 meters and width of 11 meters. The ship is both unusually wide and unusually shallow in order to better withstand the forces of pressing ice. The idea was that as the ice formed and pressed close around her she would pop out of it like a squeezed olive pip and so would ride up on the ice rather than being crushed by it.

The smell of tar, oakum and engine oil when you enter the museum is wonderful. You can wander all over the ship and see how amazingly solid she is, and how comfy she must have been.  Nansen tried to make it as comfortable as possible for his crew as they would be staying aboard, fixed in the ice, for at least one winter, perhaps two. So it is heavily insulated and the kitchen is at the heart of the ship so that both food and heat become central. There are private cabins and a saloon and there were lots of entertainments on board – including a magic lantern projector and a piano! Being on Fram gave me a foretaste of life aboard Antigua – another 40m three-masted ship headed for the Arctic with a comfy saloon (more on that in an upcoming post).

Ice level view of the prow

Ice level view of the prow

Cross-battened hull for extra protection from the ice

Cross-battened hull for extra protection from the ice

Heavily reinforced hull

Heavily reinforced hull.

Cosy private cabin

Cosy private cabins

The displays that line the walls of the museum go into great detail about each of Fram’s expeditions. There are convincing reenactment videos of Amundsen’s crew working in their Antarctic base (the Framheim – the home of the Fram), based on contemporary photographs.

Working on the sleds in the wood workshop carved out of the Antarctic snow

Working on the sleds and gear crates in the wood workshop carved out of the Antarctic snow.

There are some wonderful large scale dioramas to guide our imaginations.

Diorama of preparations on the Antarctic ice

Diorama of preparations on the Antarctic ice

Many of the original objects used by the explorers are on display.

Amundsen's personal camera

Amundsen’s personal camera

Mysterious white 'stamina' tablets. I wonder if I can get some for the Arctic trip?

Mysterious white ‘stamina’ tablets. I wonder if I can get some for the Arctic trip?

I really started to get a feel for life on Fram. I can understand why Amundsen was so anxious to have her on his voyage to the Antarctic. She wasn’t a fabulous performer in the open ocean (her broad beam and flat bottom made her wallow and drag in heavy seas) but she was a major character in the heroic age of polar exploration. The first successful attempt on the South Pole wouldn’t have been the same without her!

Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 1 – the Viking ships

Donald & Roald

Donald & Roald

I was on the hunt for Polar Bears while I was up North, I was also on the trail of Roald Amundsen.

As you might recall from high school geography or history classes, Amundsen was the first man to reach both poles. In fact, he was the first man to reach each of the Poles independently. The South Pole in 1911 with four companions on dog sled and skis, the North Pole in 1926 aboard the Italian airship “Norge” (created and captained by Umberto Nobile). On both trips he was accompanied by his fellow explorer Oscar Wistig so technically he shares the honor. Though Wistig is mostly considered  an historical footnote (along with the first African American polar explorer Matthew Henson who accompanied Robert Peary on 7 voyages over 23 years including Peary’s now disputed first arrival at the Geographic North Pole in 1909).

Amundsen is a great hero in Norway. Which is hardly surprising for this great seafaring nation. I spent a day enjoying four great nautical museums on the outskirts of Oslo. The Viking Ship Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Nautical Museum and, the icing on the cake, the Fram Museum. All of them provided important clues for my understanding of Amundsen.

The Viking ship Museum was the obvious starting point and a pilgrimage in its own right. I have wanted to view the Oseberg and Gokstad ships since I first saw images of them (in National Geographic perhaps?). What incredible works of functional craftsmanship. They still provide the most revealing evidence of what viking ships were actually like. Prior to their discovery in the late 19th century, the only clues came from the oral sagas, carvings on a few extant standing stones and the Bayeux Tapestry (AD 1077?).

Vikings invading the Bayeaux Tapestry

Vikings invading the Bayeaux Tapestry

Both ships are believed to have been functional (one a luxury yacht and the other a trade ship) prior to their use as funerary vessels. They had been looted and were shattered and degraded when they were discovered in the late 1800’s but thanks to an amazing restoration effort they now seem ready to sail again.

Sightseers at the Oseberg excavation 1904

Sightseers at the Oseberg excavation 1904

Oseberg ship

Oseberg ship restored

Oseberg lines - sweet!

Oseberg lines – sweet!

The carving work is beautifully restored and preserved and both ships have a wonderful patina that comes in part from their age but primarily from their preservation in tung oil and creosote – a finish that I might pursue myself!

Gokstad ship

Gokstad ship

Prow details

Prow details

Bed head details - the women found aboard were laid to rest in ornately carved beds.

Bed head details – the women found aboard were laid to rest in ornately carved beds.

I enjoyed savouring the long and culturally layered history of the seafaring vikings. I’m from viking stock myself, as are most folk who have Britain in their ancestry, and my family name was created for a Norman lord who was one of the invaders in the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

The Norman conquest was taught in my grade school books as an invasion from France but it was actually a mingling of related folk from across the English Channel. The “Normans” were named so  because of their northern (i.e. Viking) roots. And by the time of the “conquest” the vikings had been living  amongst the ‘native’ britons for almost two centuries.

I couldn’t help but imagine the fabled viking raider of Britain and France, Ragnar Lodbrok (“hairy breeches”) moodily perched on the prow looking out to sea for new conquests.

Ragnar Lodbrok as played by the hunk Travis Fimmel on the History channel's fab series Vikings

Ragnar Lodbrok as played by the hunk Travis Fimmel on the History channel’s delicious series “Vikings”.

My favorite vessel was one of the small tenders found with the Gokstad ship. I could imagine myself at the prow of this one!

A sweet and handy little vessel.

A sweet and handy little vessel.

Isbjørn – In search of the ice bear.

I have returned to civilization after my trek to the far north and I have many tales to tell.

Naturally, my true reason to head to the Arctic was to hunt Polar Bears. As I drew closer and closer to the Pole, they became more prevalent and, at times, I discovered them in the most unusual places where I was ill-prepared for the encounter!

My first close encounter with a ‘real’ bear was at the Fram Museum in Oslo. I think he’d stopped by to visit his old friend Fridtjof Nansen. He seemed docile but irritable – not surprising as he was in the cafe, waiting in line for a stale lamington.

Don't touch me!

Don’t touch me!

For some reason all the other customers had decided to leave.

Was it the bear or the stale laming tons?

Was it the bear or the stale lamingtons?

Some of his friends had decided to move into the museum too. I guess if Nansen was free to park in the drift ice for a couple of years, they felt free to return the favor and crash at his place for a while.

Looking for an inuit snack.

Looking for an inuit snack.

From Prof. Larsen's treatise on Polar Bear behavior.

From Prof. Larsen’s treatise on Polar Bear behavior.

Hanging out with the kids

Hanging out with the kids

One particularly hostile bear was to be found in the thrilling horror arcade next to the Fram. I entered with trepidation.

Icy tingles went up my spine.

Icy tingles went up my spine.

The atmosphere chilled and I could here the grinding of bergs.

The atmosphere chilled and I could hear the grinding of bergs.

The ice mummy!

The ice mummy!

Suddenly! There he was!

Suddenly! There he was!

I thought the Natural History Museum in Oslo would be a safer place for me to expand my understanding of Polar Bears. However even here I was in for a harrowing surprise.

Red in tooth and claw.

Red in tooth and claw.

He had some interestingly gruesome tales tales to tell. Mostly of the loss of his kin!

Tales of loss and woe.

Tales of woe – and the need for breath mints!

I found his brother bjørn upstairs stalking some rather moldy prey.

Waiting forever for the seal to make a fatal move!

Waiting forever for the seal to make a fatal move!

With my newfound understanding from encounters with the many  expat isbjørn I met in Oslo, I decided I was ready to head north in search of their more lively brethren. I was lucky. As soon as my plane touched down in the distant town of Longyearbyen on the coast of Spitsbergen, I encountered a noble specimen.

Don't complain about missing luggage in Lonyearbyen.

Don’t complain about missing luggage in Lonyearbyen.

Here the Isbjørn were more fearless than in the civilized cities of Norway.

This one was running loose in the supermarket.

"Where's the seafood section?"

“Where’s the seafood section?”

Surprisingly, they were even prowling in the Svalbard Musuem!

"These seals look stuffed to me!"

“These seals look stuffed to me!”

And so it was finally time to climb aboard the good ship Antigua and set sail for the drift ice and glaciers of the Svalbard Archipelago to see if I might  find a truly wild and free Isbjørn – one less familiar with the ways of humans. We sailed for days. Cruising through the ice floes, searching along glacier tongues, listening to the walruses and seals to see if they had any news.

On and on through the fog and ice…

We came to the fabled abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden, where we had heard that there had been a recent sighting by a vigilant local hunter.

Comrade Alexander on his endless vigil.

Comrade Alexander on his endless vigil.

Our trusted native guides found nothing!

Saint Therese, the far sighted.

Saint Therese, the far-sighted.

Eventually we heard the alarm call that a bear had been sighted in the local bar! Imagine our disappointment on arrival. I thought the Russians knew their bears!

A Red Herring!

A Red Herring!

We set sail once more upon the open seas and icebound fjords.

We sailed further south, away from the pack ice, looking for lone bears who had decided to risk the warmer weather in search of prey.

After days of hunting, finally, we were rewarded. We bravely landed in our zodiacs and mounted a montane rise to spy a solo bear among the growlers and bergs calved from the nearby glacier. He was comfortably munching on what appeared to be a seal’s noggin’ but at that range and in my heightened sense of fear it was hard to hold my spyglass steady.

I calmed my nerves, took aim, crossed my fingers and took my shot!!!

At last, a living Isbjørn!

At last, a living Isbjørn!

At last, after thousands of miles and many (very) dead ends we had seen the majestic Isbjørn. Striding powerfully through his native habitat, confident in his position as apex predator (almost!).

We took our leave. Returning to the trusty Antigua we set sail for a safe harbor and a well earned reward!!

An icy cold Isbjørn.

An icy cold Isbjørn.

Stay tuned for more tall tales and true from the Arctic soon!!

New York – Tara Donovan and Hiroshi Sugimoto

Continuing to explore the New York galleries, I headed to Chelsea with my old Icelandic comrade and superb photographer Mark Hartman.

Icelandic comrades re-united on a Vespa

Icelandic comrades re-united on a Vespa

By far the best work was at Pace Gallery. Two outstanding exhibitions by two of my all time favorite artists – Tara Donovan and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Both end on June 28th so get going!!!

Tara Donovan

Tara Donovan

This amazing geological work is composed of millions of of white index cards stacked on top of each other in sedimentary layers. The structures remind me of those dribble sand mounds you make at the beach. The textures when you get up close belie the scale and I found myself imagining scaling the cliffs of paper.

Getting lost in the detail

Getting lost in the detail

The detail reminds me of my friend Stephen Hilyard’s seductive Rapture of the Deep  photo series created from images of diving in the crystal waters of Iceland.

Dougal, Leysin 1977 from Stephen Hilyard's Rapture of the Deep series

Dougal, Leysin 1977

Going deeper.

Going deeper.

In the adjacent gallery was another of her hard to define, but oh so evocative large sculptures made from thousands of narrow square section rods of acrylic.

Tara Donovan Untitled

Tara Donovan



As if that wasn’t delicious enough, in the adjacent gallery space was a huge showing of part of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ongoing series of diorama photographs.They were presented beautifully. Huge black and white prints with immensely rich tonal range and detail,  mounted in fat black frames but with no glass, so there was nothing between you and the surface of the print – an open window onto an illusory landscape. They were all mounted high on the wall so that the I felt dwarved by the works. Almost as if I was a kid again peering over the lip of the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History (in Sydney, New York, San Francisco,Oslo, etc.). I’ve always loved dioramas and I feel already that they are going to be an important part of this trip – deja vu in hindsight – if there is such a thing.

Sugimoto in the woods

Sugimoto in the woods – c. 10 ft long!


Detail – luscious warm tones

Sugimoto on ice

Sugimoto on ice

Lone gull on the otherwise empty diorama.

Lone gull on the otherwise empty diorama.

Sugimoto and the Isbjørn

Sugimoto and the Isbjørn

A preview of travels and dioramas to come! Next stop Oslo……

Unfortunately, I won’t have internet access again until the end of June.

So stay tuned…..

Baer – Wayfinding

I love maps. I thought I’d just admit that publicly!

I think Icelanders love of maps too. At least you’d think so from the quality of the atlases and maps I’ve seen here. Maps are a means of not only knowing where you are and of delineating territory, they are a way of finding a place for yourself in the world.

Here is Iceland, a small island in the midst of the North Atlantic surrounded by deep, cold seas.

The view from the ‘edge of space’.

Though the island is relatively small in area and population, in many ways it’s also vast. The the landscape seems huge when you are in it – the horizon is far away, the mountains are ice capped, there are no trees to break up or soften the views. It’s very easy to imagine getting lost in the snow, turned around in the fog, lost in a storm at sea or simply confounded by the sheer scale of space here.

My first inclination on heading somewhere new is to find a topo map of the region. On my first day here, I was delighted to find a huge 3-D topo map as the central display in Reykjavik’s City Hall. The whole island reduced to the size of a small swimming pool.

Oðin’s eye view

Skagafjöður on the giant topo looking from the North. Baer is left of center. The red patch is the nearby town of Hofsós.

On a map it looks like this.

Detailed topo of the ‘hood’ – see Baer above Hofsós

Older maps give another view of the place and another view on ways to view the place!

Ortelius’ map of Islandia from 1590

Love the whales!

Fearsome Creatures!

Frontispiece from another early atlas.

When my residency finishes I’ll be heading off with Sandra to circumnavigate the island. Heading east to the coast and then down around the south where the glaciers spill out into the North Atlantic across giant lava sand flood plains that flow with water and rubble whenever the volcanoes beneath the glaciers vent their larva into the capping ice.

I’ve never seen such a strange topo map! The glaciers flowing between the escarpments, the huge flatlands stretching to the sea with a thousand small streams taking the runoff from the melting glaciers. I can’t wait to see the reality for which the map is a simulacrum.


The Giant Camera

My colleague Peter L’Abbe has been researching Camera Obsucra recently and inspired me to visit the Giant Camera last time I was down at Ocean Beach! It had been years since I was last inside it and it was even cooler than I remember.

The Giant Camera perched on the cliffs at the northern end of Ocean Beach

It’s the last remnant of the various amazing entertainments that were found at this end of the beach back in the day. The Sutro Baths (burned down in 1966) and Playland (closed after a series of unsolved macabre murders – just kidding) were the big pieces in this now long gone picture.

Sutro Baths

Now the only amusement left is the Giant Camera. Standing alone on the cliff edge it has a bittersweet nostalgia about it. As if it too is waiting patiently for the end to come – watching the sun set on a bygone era – sniff, sniff.

Giant Camera and Seal Rocks

Roll up! Roll up!

Lots of helpful signage.

...dating from antiquity...

You pay your $3 and go in through the narrow squeaky doors to the darkened room. Eventually the MC comes in from the ticket booth, opens the all-seeing oculus and the world outside is magically projected on to the 5′ diameter dish in the center of the room.

The deep dish diorama

Its remarkably bright and the detail is incredible. As the upper tower rotates the full 360° panorama unrolls across the screen. You have to walk around with it otherwise the world starts to slip and slide.

Its a great experience! The curvature of the screen, the rotation, the constant sliding of the image, the incredible clarity. I want one in my house!

It looks like we are about to slide off the end of the world.

Bartram Gardens I

But all this Philly fun aside. I was here to work!

I had been invited to attend one of the open days in conjunction with a collaborative exhibition project between the Bartram Gardens (the US’s oldest botanical gardens) and the Center for Art in Wood. I knew very little about John Bartram and this legacy before I left Bayarea but I’m a always intrigued by a tale of internationalism and the dawning discipline of science during the Enlightenment.

I was excited to finally get there along with a gaggle of folk who I really respect (Albert LeCoff, Matt Hebert, Merryll Saylan, Mark Sfirri, Don Miller Jr., Jack Larimore, Leah Woods) and some others who I’ll get to know soon I hope. We met and talked and then went on a rambling, meandering stroll through Bartram’s garden down to the shores of the Schyulkill River.

The restored barn and house were very surprising to me having spent little time on the East Coast. So humble and hard hewn, but with touches of common luxury showing in some of the careful (if haphazard) details. I’m such a sucker for the vernacular!

Luscious lintels

Mysterious arcane symbols of fertility and idleness carved by the hand of John Bartram - we choose to believe.

The magnificent but humble house of the Bartram family.

I have to admire the heroic rough hewn columns of local stone, the window trims and  the carved motto – affirming Bartram’s revolutionary and enlightened stance against the orthodoxy of the Quaker faith.

"It is God Alone, Almyty Lord, the Holy One, by me Ador'd"

But we were here to do a bit of botanizing and hypothesizing. The gardens themselves are exquisite. Gone of course, are Bartram’s own crops, livestock and orchards – he was a working farmer after all. But still here are some of the trees that he or his son’s John Jr. and William Bartram planted

John Bartram purchased 102 acres here in 1728 and started to farm, build and explore. He wisely or fortuitously found a parcel of land at the junction of different geological groups that enjoyed diverse microclimates. Through his building of terraced stone walls and buildings he created sun-drenched hollows protected from the winter chills to enable him to grow an increasingly broad range of plants. These he found locally, or transplanted from further afield following a series of increasingly adventurous and ambitious expeditions and then finally through a fertile exchange with fellow botanists and horticulturalists in England. The whole wonderful tale of his commercial, scientific, camaraderie and friendship with  Peter Collinson in England is told in sumptuous detail by Andrea Wulf in her tale ‘The Brother Gardeners – Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession,” which also deals in detail with my old friend and life companion Sir Joseph Banks. Read it!

But let’s walk first!

The oldest living Gingko biloba in the US. Thought to be one of the original three bought to the US from China via England. One of which was given to William Bartram to nurture - which he clearly did!

Carnivorous plants first bought to the attention of Western botany by John Bartram

And the cage they're kept in - they ARE carnivorous after all!

Callicarpa americana - seducing English gardeners into a feeding frenzy almost as rabid as that of the Dutch with their tulips.

Later we went on a small tour of the house itself. Very relaxing and easy going – a comfortable life here is easy to imagine! A rambling and idiosyncratic interior, with a great Y-shaped staircase branching two two separate 2nd floor landings. I’ve only seen another like it in the Wharton Esherick house in Paoli, Pennsylvania. You can get a glimpse of that staircase here!

Bartram wuz 'ere!

The highlight of the inside tour was to catch a glimpse, in the gathering evening dark, of a small medicine chest used by James Howell Bartram (John Jr.’s son). most likely it was built for grandfather John Bartram, by John’s brother James (a local cabinetmaker). Nice piece! Got me thinking in earnest about what I might make for this exhibition. More on that later!

Bartram's Medicine Chest

ESP – The Eastern State Penitentiary

Oops, jumped too far forward. I haven’t finished talking about the trip to Philly.

Continuing the tour of strange museums of Philadelphia we come to the Eastern States Penitentiary.

I first heard of this space when Alan Wexler gave his first lecture at CCA. He was chosen to create a project for Prison Sentences: The Prison as Site/The Prison as Subject in 1995 at the Eastern State Penitentiary – where he created a huge range of the artifacts for use in the space (books, paintbrushes, pigments,etc.) by dismantling and re-assembling things that were provided for his maintenance (paper cups and plates, napkins, etc.). I remember it seeming like a strange mix of Gilligan’s Island, Angkor Wat and every POW movie I’ve ever seen.

Enlightenment gothic!

The textures that have been retained, fostered, restored are amazing! It’s almost like coral in places.

Stairway to heaven?

And close up its Rauschenberg meets Kiefer (maybe).




You can’t NOT think about what human suffering sweat and talk has percolated through these walls to leave such stains.

Say goodbye for two years of solitary...

Some of the long abandoned cells have a grandeur about them. This one still has remnants of the urban rainforest that blossomed on this site after it was abandoned in the 70's

Some of the cells have become locations for site specific artworks.

Karen Schmidt's - Cozy. A hand-knit cell-warmer.

Local entomologist Greg Cowper's tribute to a prisoner who displayed his collection of 18 species of butterflies and moths (some quite rare) gathered at the ESP to Dr Henry Skinner in 1889.

Cowper works in the same role at the same institution as Skinner did 200 years ago. He has now collected more than 500 specimens of more than 150 species of insects and invertebrates at ESP which are now displayed in one of the cells.

There's been a long history of art at ESP as you can see from this extraordinary documentation of two inmate's precocious performance art from the 50's.

The ‘official’ caption reads “The meaning of their project has long been forgotten”. I think I’ve found the perfect epitaph!

The Wagner Museum

Michael suggested we vista the Wagner Museum – ostensibly an un-reformed Victorian natural history collection ranging from rocks to man in neat systematic order. How could I resist?

The Wagner Free Insitute of Science - What a warm welcome!

William Wagner 1796-1885 - 90 years! Quite a specimen himself!

Strangely enough there is very little on their website – too far in the future for the Wagner? Only a nice daguerreotype of founder Wagner, the briefest bio in the universe ” William Wagner (1796-1885) was a Philadelphia merchant, philanthropist, and amateur scientist” and the following brief review from 1870 – “The Wagner houses a large nucleus for illustration, and where the student can perfect himself in the studies made readily available by the Institution. The collections are the most extensive in the country, and of a superior order, embracing a serried rank of more than half a million of specimens. Every person interested in the natural sciences could further benefit from the enrichment this rich and beautiful collection of specimens offer.”

Stepping back in time - I forgot my morning coat!

The first floor corridors are lined with original Audobon prints!

The skunk was my favorite, but they wouldn't let me take him home.

And then on the second floor there is row after row of beautiful cabinet work with hand-floated glass and tens of thousands of geological and zoological specimens. Damn I just realized I must have missed the ENTIRE plant kingdom! There’s another trip right there.

Prof. Miller deep in thought.

All of the specimens are exquisitely labelled with fine ink copperplate lettering on aging yellowing paper.

"The Creator has an inordinate fondness for beetles" J.B.S. Haldane and bees

Echidna - I'd never seen a monotreme skeleton before.

Arrrrggghhhh! Barnacles!

The smallest egg in the museum

There's even a nice little section on practical taxonomy - cute, eh?

Some seem to resent the treatment!

Some just loose it completely!!

This last critter reminds me now of the ESP which I visited on my last day. The Eastern States Penitentiary – the first Penitentiary (place of penitence) in North America. More on this incredible archive of suffering in a future post.