Archive for July, 2011

Hello Velo

Is it possible to forget how to ride a bike?

It always fascinated me that something which shouldn’t be that simple, riding a bike, actually is. But that is not all that fascinates me. It is the bicycle itself, the world’s most utilitarian transport.

The bike is fascinating because wherever you go in the world there is always someone riding a bike. The more I travel the more I see it’s usefulness; London, the Pyrenees, Beijing – all have bikes. Different people with different uses, but many use bikes. I’m not going to give a potted history of the bicycle, as there are many worthwhile texts out there which have devoted thousands of words to it.

Anyway, what does a bike have to do with the museum and why have I chosen it? Well, I’m a keen cyclist. I have cycled all over Europe and there is nothing I love more than getting up early on a Sunday, driving to the countryside and going for a ride. My bike is a Giant Trance. On it I have changed the grips, pedals, big ring, seat clamp and the list goes on. I spend a lot of time thinking of how to make it lighter/faster/more attractive. This is not the case with the bike here in the museum.

Sir Chris Hoy asked to borrow this for the Olympics

It is a perfect example of the utilitarian bike people within industrial Blackburn would own. This sort of bike wasn’t made for pleasure; it was made to get to work. This wasn’t used for weekend touring in the Dordogne. or for thrashing it down the hills of Fort William. Rather than just do a straight historical road test like the clogs or irons I decided to test it against my bike. Which is better?

Seat:   Surprisingly comfortable on the oldie, much more comfortable than mine. History 1 – 0 Modern

Suspension:      Front and rear suspension on my bike, two springs under the saddle of the old bike. History 1 – 1 Modern

Brakes:        Front and rear disc brakes compared to non-existent rim brakes on the boneshaker. History 1 – 2 Modern

Handling:       The old bike handles surprisingly well. The geometry of the frame and set-up of the bike meant handling around potholes or playing children would be relatively easy.  A conclusive test (around our gallery) couldn’t split the two.  Half point each.  History 1.5 – 2.5 Modern

In the final sprint, on the Champs de Victorian Gallery during Le Tour de Museum

Cost:      Old bike = Not a lot. Modern Mountain/Road bikes = Bloody expensive. History 2.5 – 2.5 Modern

Fun Factor:     The novelty of the old bike meant the ride was a lot of fun. Probably not so fun anywhere the surface isn’t flat. Impossible to do wheelies on too! History 2.5 – 3.5 Modern 

In the end the modern bike wins it by a point, but a closely fought contest. If you have memories of trundling around Blackburn on your bike, and the best and worst places to ride them, please put them in the comments. I would love to hear them!

A Whiter Shade of Pale

The collection here includes an interesting array of makeup from the mid- twentieth century including Rimmel face powder with a plastic cover that you would pierce to open.

Rimmel's face powder from the 1920's

 Nowadays there are all sorts of variations of foundation including ones with clever minerals, ones that adjusts to your skin tone and ones that are so long lasting it’s difficult to take it off. But even with all these innovations the Rimmel powder in the collection does not look all that different from my 2011 Rimmel powder.

 Our modern foundations can be traced to the first three decades of the 1900’s and the need for make-up which could be used on the ever increasing movie sets. Max Factor’s ‘Pan-Cake’ revolutionised foundation, changing the nature of how make-up was used, once just greasepaint for actors, now an everyday, every weather accessory. Whilst Max Factor may have been the midwife of modern foundation, the desire to alter our complexion and hide our facial blemishes has been around much longer. The Greeks and Romans, men and women, would apply chalks and lead to their faces. In the middle ages women would bleed themselves and apply an arsenic powder. The Elizabethans concocted a white lead paint and brushed egg whites on their faces to look shinier. In the Victorian period, women would eat chalk and drink iodine in the hope that the colour would drain from their face.

 I thought I would try my hand at becoming a makeup artist for the day and have a go at applying some of the methods used in history, almost all of which are designed to make skin look paler – at odds with the modern desire to have tanned, darker complexions. Foundation sounds to have been pretty dangerous, people died from ingesting arsenic, lead and mercury through their skin. So I thought best not to try these recipes on my willing model’s face, instead opting for the chalk and egg look.

Egg on your face - Elizabethan style

 And the conclusion of this experiment… unsurprisingly chalk does make your complexion lighter in a very unnatural, mime type way and egg whites do make you ultra shiny before hardening and giving you exaggerated wrinkles. I am reliably informed that the egg whites also leave your skin feeling nourished and soft, but the chalk strips your skin of any moisture. Our twenty-first century love of looking natural by faking it up means I don’t think either will be modelled by Cheryl Cole any time soon.


Blackburn Museum can be found in Blackburn, Lancashire. It houses objects documenting Blackburn's industrial past as well as a world class collection of Fine Art, Japanese prints, Icons, Numismatics and Manuscripts. Come and visit us to find out more.

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