Sunday, 26 February 2012

Ramblings: Nights in the Museum


Paul and I took a trip to the local museum on Saturday to see a newly refurbished gallery and an art exhibition, which was lovely and made even lovelier by being with Paul. I had to warn Paul, though, when we entered the museum, that I have a long standing museum phobia stemming from my childhood. He was on standby and luckily I didn’t freak out too much.

As a small child my maternal grandfather doted on my brother and me. He only had a small family, no brothers and sisters, no surviving parents and only one daughter, and was keen to spend time with the small family he did have. He often liked to take us out with him at weekends and I always gladly trotted along. He was an interesting man. He always dressed smartly, usually in a baggy suit with a waistcoat. He was painfully thin, shaved twice a day, slicked his hair down with Brylcreem, polished his shoes daily and smoked incessantly. He worked in a factory and rode to work on a huge 1950s bicycle, trousers safely bicycle clipped, cigarette in mouth. His main interests in life were sitting in his chair reading, gambling and drinking in the local pub. He also loved to sleep late, emerging at around noon on his days off. He was comical, laughed a lot (a very dirty laugh) and was a true relic of the 1940s and 1950s.

I’d stand by his legs, waiting for the rare moments he allowed me to press the buttons on the fruit machines. I’d take his tea up when he lay snoring in bed and my grandmother’s patience snapped when he was still asleep at midday. The football results were sacred. We’d have to sit in utter silence and not move whilst he marked off the results for his Football Pools dividend. His gambling paid off eventually and he won a fair sum of money on a game called Spot the Ball. You had to guess where the ball was on a picture from a football match and then put little crosses in the place where it could be. I loved helping him do this, but sadly it wasn’t my crosses that won him a jackpot. Sadly, he died suddenly not long after winning the money but he’d enjoyed it whilst he had it.

One place he liked a lot was the museum and this was for two reasons. Firstly, there was a recreation of a pub there and this was based on his step-father’s pub in the 1920s to 1930s and had the pub sign above it with his name on it. Secondly there was a display of military paraphernalia, some of which related to his time in the war and the section of the army he was in. He’d take us there several times a year to show us things which was both good and bad.

As much as I admired my grandfather, the museum trips were made through gritted teeth and were, for me, a tour of terror more than an educational wonderland. You entered the museum at street level and we invariably ignored the ground floor as it was a display of dull crockery which bored us all. We’d mount the stairs and my legs would start to quake in my shorts and my hand would begin to grip his tighter and tighter as my brother loitered happily behind us.

We’d enter the first gallery which I called The Dead Animal Room. It was floor to ceiling taxidermy. Bears loomed over you, teeth bared. There was a huge bulls head on the wall, its leathery skin and bulbous eyes terrifying me. There were brown rats, huge birds, leering big cats and enormous apes. You had to walk through a contorted passageway of glass cases, each one ten feet high and each containing hundreds of hideous dead animals in contorted poses. Eyes stared at you from every corner. I literally quaked and tried to be brave as I knew worse was to come. There was peer pressure too as my brother was happily walking around looking at things. I couldn’t be the weaker one.

Next we’d pass through a gallery of paintings on our way to The Faceless Soldiers. The war display was a huge room full of dummies in military dress. They were posed in tableaus and each one had no face, just a piece of bare white cotton. I’ve never been fond of things without eyes or mouths. They’re the substance of nightmares. To make matters worse they generally also carried huge knives or guns. These people were certainly not my friends. They were horrifying and sinister.

Next we’d walk past a huge stone sarcophagus on our way to the worst horror of all, the Mummies or as I knew it The Dead Ginger Man.  The sarcophagus was on a plinth and I imagined there was still a corpse in it. By this stage I was usually very quiet, ashen grey and all of a tremble. The two mummies were in glass cases; along with their cat which to this day I’m convinced is actually a skittle in bandages. It definitely looks like one. One of the mummies had complete bandaging; the other had an exposed scalp. His leather skin was dark brown with a few tufts of fine red hair poking up. His angular face was emaciated and shrivelled. I usually wanted to scream and run by this point, shouting “There’s a bloody corpse in there!”

I imagined that they came alive at night, blinking milky eyes and wandering around chatting to the faceless militia or petting the animals in the glorified pet cemetery. I still suspect they may have done.

Finally we’d get respite and before walking back through it all again, we’d stop off in my favourite room. It was an amazing display of toy theatres. They were all colours and sizes, elaborate models from the Georgian era onwards. I coveted them and was bought several replicas over the years which I frequently played with. The room was a place of delight for an over imaginative five year old and a respite from all the surrounding horror.

I went to the museum alone a few years ago and the animals are still there and still dead. There are less of them now, the displays are better, the more grotesque ones consigned to storage. They still make me shudder though. The soldiers haven’t grown faces yet and still stand in menacing poses and the mummy still lies in his glass coffin, dead flesh exposed. The pub is gone but my step-great-grandfather’s sign remains there.

I thought I could cope with visiting the museum alone in my thirties but I was wrong. Alone was the operative word as there was literally no one else there bar the occasional attendant. There was just me, dead things and scary dummies. I left needing a lie down, my nerves jangling.

My grandfather was an interesting man and fun to be around but I wish I’d had more courage. All it would have taken was the courage to tell him that the huge Victorian museum made me want to urinate. I’m sure he’d have taken my hand and led me out of there, kindly. Thank fully I can make a choice now and can also have Paul on standby with a warm hand if it gets too frightening. He doesn’t seem to mind.

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