The American Museum of Natural History

This Summer was my first visit to New York and one of the things near everyone said I HAD to check out was the Museum of Natural History – a recommendation not without merit. I ended up spending hours upon hours checking out a rather impressive collection of varied and almost disturbingly lifelike exhibits (including the newly acquired and famous Titanosaurus and the legendary Blue Whale).

It was an exhausting and enriching experience trolling the halls of the Museum with my trusty SLR and while I was impressed with the state and volume of the AMNH’s collection, I was a little disappointed to see that some of their literature/signage was desperately in need of updating and/or fact-checking (I even tweeted one such image at them at the time but it seems they took no notice). I’m sure in the larger scheme of the cultural and educational service institutions like the AMNH discharge, such errors or oversights are negligible. At the same time however, I wondered how many of the kids running around that Museum that day, or indeed any other, would go home having learnt something somewhat ignorant, and mildly insensitive, through someone else’s goof. Still – not to make a mountain out of a mole hill – such minors slips aside, I left that day feeling richer for the experience.

If you’re going to go I’d chalk out at least 3-4 hours to really appreciate the collection they have. And it’ll be worth going online in advance and checking if any of the exhibits are closed (like the Butterfly House – which is seasonal and was sadly closed when I made my visit).

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An Afternoon at the Museum(s)

Despite spending a wonderful year in Oxford I had not, much to my chagrin, visited the two linked museums in oxford – the Natural History Museum and the Pitt Rivers. So a few days past, thanks to the prodding of a very dear friend, I finally made the excursion to see the muss and fuss (and of course the Shrunken Heads!)

What followed was a realisation that these two museums are severely lacking in space. Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to imply that they were by any means shoddy or architecturally minuscule… Rather I make such a comment simply to make more dramatic the point (as is my habit ; p) that the institutions are absolutely bursting with an amazingly diverse collection of artefacts, fossils and various bits and bobs. While I have had the pleasure of visiting many museums, none made so vigorous an effort to catalogue the minutia of human existence as did the Pitt Rivers. And the Museum of Natural History can boast many wonders of its own… From masks to games to arms to cosmetics – the various displays house thousands of little pieces of the human story.

But it’s not all tiny puzzle pieces of the grander human experiment (apologies for the mixed metaphor). There is also much for the less anthropologically inclined, such as dinosaur fossils, various extinct species of animals and a fairly decent collection of stuffed animals. Admittedly I did not spend much time in Natural History Museum, owing most to the fact that I found it difficult to stare at the stuffed remains of so many beautiful creatures, which I would have given much to see in the wild. Sadly for many of us, and especially generations to come, stuffed and mounted is probably the only way many of them will ever be seen.

My personal thoughts on conservation and preservation aside, the Pitt Rivers is a wonderful family friendly afternoon that I encourage all of you in or about Oxford to drop in on. Admission is free and you can even enjoy a nice picnic in the garden out front.

For more details about visiting and what’s on go to Pitt Rivers Museum or Natural History Museum sites.

Euro-Trippin – All Roads Lead To Rome

Like the former two cities we visited, Rome was easily manageable on foot – well, at least most of the ‘must-see’ spots aren’t that far away from each other. Which was very good, because I actually found the public transportation system to be rather confusing – there was no call for stops on the buses so we basically had to guess-timate where we were based on our little map, as we passed things we could spot on it – terribly frustrating. Also, buying tickets was a bit of a pain because the machines wouldn’t accept notes if the change to be given was more than 6 Euros – WTF?!

Despite the annoyance of the buses, we had a marvelous stay in Rome. Speaking of stays, I should mention here that the place where we hung our hats for the night – Funny Palace (ok I know that’s not the most confidence inspiring name) – was pretty great. It was just a few minutes from the main Bus/Train Terminal (Termini), which was fantastic, and the proprietor – Mabri – was a really nice guy who really set us up with a great itinerary for hitting up the town in a way best suited to our length of stay – he even marked out the best routes and areas for us and gave us some good tips on avoiding queues and long waits for tickets and threw in a bottle of wine as a welcome gift : ) The room itself was super comfortable and all-in-all I was happy with the pick.

The first great stop on our sight-seeing tour was the Palatino (Palatine Hill) and the Forum Romana (the Forum). It was amazing to walk through the various ruins and imagine what these great structures must have once been like. To look at now, for the average person they might be underwhelming, but if you just sit there and look with your mind’s eye, their once proud majesty and beauty is inspiring – you just need to envision it as it once stood (sort of the loading screen in Assassin’s Creed where you see the city scale to fruition before your eyes). If you’re a history or architecture buff you’ll still get more of a kick out of visiting, as I did, but for a lot of people… Well, let’s just say I saw a lot of disappointed faces. It will definitely be more worth it if you get an audio guide and really get to learn a little (having said that, the two us made do with eavesdropping over other groups ; p – at least that we got a lot of different stories and did bits).

Right next to the ruins of the forum is the Colosseum – the great amphitheater in Rome where so many of exciting stories and movies are set. It is a monumental sight, though it is quite a shame just how much of it has given way to the ages – you see much evidence of the various measures being taken just to hold it together. Still, one advantage of this is that you get to see an x-ray like view of the intricacies of the building – the complex tunnel work in the subterranean levels below the arena floor and the numerous facades and stairways. Though it may not look the part it did in Spartacus or Gladiator, it is still an amazing sight to behold, especially at night – the lights within and without the building serve to bathe it in a beautiful golden and red glow which makes it look just a septic as you would have imagined it should be.

No visit to Rome in complete without a visit to the Vatican. Technically it is the smallest sovereign state in the world (but don’t worry you don’t need a passport to cross over) so for a few hours, you’ll be leaving Italy. The compound is surrounded by massive fortified walls which give it a rather medieval visage as you approach it, but inside, as modernized as any other city. We were advised to book online to avoid queues (which entails a 4 Euro surcharge) and did so to find that everyone had the same idea, meaning there were actually only a handful of people in line. Fail! Still, the extra coin was soon forgotten after we began to walk the halls of the Musee Vaticani (the Vatican Museums). What struck me first of was how beautifully well-preserved the exhibits were. Take for example, the Egyptian exhibits in the Museu Gregario Egizion – the statues were completely undamaged, still had their unblemished marble sheen and there were statues of deities I was familiar with but had never seen, even in the likes of the British Museum in London. And while in the Museu pio Constantine, in looking around at the wonderful statues don’t forget to look down – the intricate mosaics that cover the floors themselves are a work of art. But of course the thing that everyone wants to head towards is the famous Sistine Chapel. The fame of the chapel lies in its frescos, particularly the ceiling of the chapel which was painted by Michelangelo. I would have liked to share a picture with you, but they are super strict about people taking photographs in that room (though it was hilarious to see so many people try – and get caught). Personally, I didn’t think it was that far apart from the many (MANY) frescos we had seen on this trip, but I did marvel at the idea that one man took on the project of such a vast scale – it would have been no small task – and that it impressive.

An area that I would definitely recommend you try out, though it is less ‘tourist top 10’ is what we were told is the old part of town – the area across the Ponte Sisto or Ponte Garibaldi bridges, around the Santa Maria in Trastevere. While the architecture in the area is fairly similar to the rest of the city, the vibe is definitely a little bit more rustic and the crowd is generally younger. There were dozens of places to get a cheap cocktail or grab a nice bite or just lounge about. But try and plan your route back if you’re staying not too close because it would be hard walk after a full meal (or a good few drinks) and as I said, public transportation can be confusing.

I really would love to go on forever about the various other sights in Rome, and there are so many more you should see – the Pantheon (which looks so majestic and powerful at night), the Trevi Fountain (where you can join in the tradition of tossing in a coin and making a wish), the Spanish Steps (a great place to just sit and enjoy the sun or watch the crowds) or the Piazza Navona (a really pretty square full of life and colors, both day and night) – but, for the sake of time and brevity, I’ll leave you to discover those on your own (though I have thrown in some pictures).

I can’t however leave you without talking about the food. Oh the food! Personally, Italian is one of my favorite cuisines of all-time (though after a full straight week of it I may not partake for a while). Eating out can be a bit of a hit-and-miss, though for the most part my taste buds were really in heaven. If I had to give you a rule of thumb, it would be to eat at places where the wait staff/hosts are locals – where they weren’t, the food tended to be a bit sub-par. Having said that, the pizzas were just amazing! In India you are hard pressed to find a place that does a good classic thin crust pizza, and if they do they charge a ridiculous amount or it’s so lean it barely feeds one. In Rome we adopted the habit of usually ordering two kinds of pizza and then feasting to our heart’s content. But not just Pizza, the pasta of course is just as brilliant. From day one I was scarfing down amazing Carbonara and Pesto. I’m fairly certain by the end of day three, we had put on twice the weight we had lost walking around Europe thus far. But you know what, WORTH IT! Two places I will go ahead and recommend are Primo Cafe in the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori (where I had an amazing pizza and house white for my birthday dinner) and a little roadside cafe called Cafe Moca, next to the river, where you can get a refreshing Granita made of freshly crushed ice and your choice  of fresh fruit and delicious syrups.

Well I leave you there dear reader (mostly because I am now famished after reliving my gastronomical adventure in Italy). Till next time!

Afternoon At The Museum

One great (and absolutely free) way to enjoy this beautiful city is to take in some culture at one of its many museums. So today I decided to spend a nice afternoon at The British Museum. They have an extensive collection of artifacts and pieces from around the world and you could literally spend an entire day there looking and marveling.

I decided to share some of the shots from my perusal of their Greco-Roman, Ancient Egyptian and Meso-American collections. Growing up, I was fascinated by these cultures – their myriads of Gods, their colorful stories, their obsession with the beauty of life and death – and I was super excited to see so much of it in person. I hope one day I will actually be able to see such beautiful pieces in their homeland (well, whats left there anyway).

Hopefully these few shots will entice you to go across and explore as well. I know I’ll definitely be making my way some time soon.

Spanish Escape

I just had the most wonderful long weekend in beautiful Madrid – What a great last hurrah before I fly back home to India in 2 days!

The pretence of the actual trip was to attend a one day conference on Intellectual Property organised by the Universidad Autonoma Madrid and Queen Mary University of London, which was great because it meant most of my fellow IP-ers were there in Madrid with me. We went to represent QM and have discussions around the challenges to Intellectual Property in the European Union – we got 3 days full of good food, wine and beautiful architecture in the bargain.

Despite the fact that it’s not a particularly big city, Madrid really does have a lot to see and do! I dare say that even with 2-3 days full of walking around (and lots of clicking with my D80) I still left with many things I missed out on. Well I suppose one should always leave oneself with an excuse to come back : )

My favourite part, hands down, was the first day when we took a super long walk through and around Parque de el Retiro, particularly because that was the one day where we got uninterrupted sun. The beautiful weather just made walking around the beautiful green surroundings all the more wonderful. By the end of the day, though my feet were worn and my legs heavy, my soul was rejuvenated and my heart light. The pace of life in Madrid seems so much more relaxed and spirited than London. If you visit I recommend you definitely go by the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) – the name is a bit deceptive (it’s basically looks a large solarium) – but the surroundings are beautiful. There is large pond out front with a tall fountain, many critters and crawlers to look out for and even a small grotto some of you couples may want to sneak into ; ) and you can end your tour of the park with a visit to the Rose Garden, which has dozens of different species of roses (as well as other flowers I believe) and sit awhile just taking in the exquisite aromas. We also stumbled into the Palacio de Valazquez which is used by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia to host exhibitions. During our visit they were hosting  an exhibition of conceptual art by Cildo Meireles. I must say, I really did not get most of his work. Though some pieces did have intriguing designs and thought-provoking themes, most seemed rather mundane or banal, but therein lies the beauty of art I suppose – let each see in it what he will.

For dinner on the second day we made out way to the Taberna les Lucio in the area known as La Latina. This definitely seems to one of the better areas to come to find a nice place to eat or have a night out. It was unbelievably packed and we had to wait some 35 minutes by the bar before we managed a place, but it was totally worth it. The food was light yet very rich and fulfilling and when we split the bill it wasn’t nearly as dear as I feared. I can see why Sean Connery, Sigourney Weaver and Bruce Springsteen all came to eat here.

Another place you absolutely must see while you’re there is Plaza Mayor. It is a magnificent late square framed internally by cafes where you can sit in the sun and enjoy some refreshing sangria and tapas. I recommend Cafeteria Christina – the staff was super friendly and he sangria was amazing! Or if you prefer you can pop nearby to the Market de San Miguel where there are dozens of food stalls that serve authentic local cuisine as well ones where you can pick up some ham or cheese for the road. It’s quite tight considering how popular it is and there isn’t really space to sit, so I recommend a quick bite and walk through rather than an extended chill session.

Finally, if you’re an art lover you should definitely pop down to the Museu Nacional de Prado. It is located near the Banco de Espana (Bank of Spain) and is one of the largest museums in Europe. And indeed it is massive! We roamed the halls for a full two hours and I we barely covered the rooms dedicated to some 2-3 artists! There are discounted entries for students under the age if 25, but if you feel like you don’t want to spend too much time in there anyway you can go for free from 6-8 pm. Like I mentioned, I am not super into art, and I am definitely not educated in the field, so I let my friends lead the way throughout. The artists they seemed to be particularly drawn to, and who the Museum seemed to have dedicated several rooms to was Francisco Goya. He definitely was quite diverse, but I think I was drawn to his “Black Paintings” the most. This series of works had some very dark and evocative themes – each painting seemed to portray feelings of dread, fear and rage. I’m not sure what happened in his life to summon this phase of his contribution to the art world, but it definitely led to some powerful images being put to canvas.

The one other artist I suggest you check out if you’re there is El Greco though my friend found his works to be lacking diversity, I found them to be quite inspiring, in fact when I walked into the room and saw the first piece I actually said “WOW” out loud. The work was titled “The Adoration of the Shephards” and indeed was aptly titled. His use if vivid colors within a pool of darkness built a beautiful contrast and there seemed to be almost a divine light from the baby Jesus in the middle of the painting, I genuinely thought at first that it was a result of the museum’s lighting!

All in all I am quite sad to have left Madrid so soon – there was so much to do and it is far less expensive than many other European cities. I could have quite easily stayed another few days, but sadly real life was calling. Some of my friend have commented that Barcelona is nicer – a question I look forward to settling for myself later his year when I take my 3 week trip around Europe with my best friend, till then let it be my favourite city in Spain : )