Friday, May 18th, 2018
This week I visited Wellcome Collection’s newest temporary exhibition, Teeth.
Before this exhibition, I had obviously not considered the cultural and historical significance of teeth and dental hygiene – of course visiting Teeth at the Wellcome Collection has entirely changed that.
Tracing the evolution of our relationship with our teeth, the exhibition shows 150 objects, from current dental ‘grills’, to ancient protective amulets and barber-surgeon chairs. As is typical with Wellcome Collection’s interpretation, while their exhibitions inevitably have some focus on the science and medical aspects of their objects and stories, at the root (tooth pun unintended) are the social histories.
Curated in the signature beautiful colour palette, the exhibition was visually stunning. From every angle the exhibition was striking and ready to be photographed. In striking but subtle pastels, the focus remains on the objects themselves, especially the contrasting dark wood of the barber-surgeon chair looming above.
The common fear of dentist chairs isn’t alleviated by the exhibition. Featured is all manner of terrifying tooth-pulling ‘keys’, drills, sharp instruments, and aluminium dentures. But charmingly, perhaps necessary after seeing all the inevitably painful Victorian methods of dental treatment and anaesthesia oil painting, the exhibition includes letters to and ‘from’ the tooth fairy. These letters are given centre stage, mounted on a significant wall at the far end of the exhibition. The importance of dental health for children, or perhaps the encouragement from parents, is consistently displayed in the exhibition.
As always, Wellcome Collection displays its human remains tastefully and ethically, consistently reminding visitors with clear signage that these are real people, not to be photographed. As always, Wellcome Collection displays its human remains tastefully and ethically, consistently reminding visitors with clear signage that these are real people, not to be photographed.
One of the key pieces of the exhibition is Napoleons toothbrush. With the handle made of silver, and engraved with Napoleons Coat of Arms, the significance that Napoleon placed upon his dental health sits well in the context of the exhibition. A biographer of Napoleon, F Masson, maintained that Napoleon would brush carefully morning and night, and clean his tongue with a silver scraper.
Teeth is open at Wellcome Collection in London from 17 May–16 September 2018.
Monday, April 30th, 2018
At the weekend, I headed down to The Feminist Library to meet with the Volunteer Coordinator, Angele, to discuss volunteering. I’m delighted to join their team, helping out with their exciting series of events coming up in 2018.
The Feminist Library is celebrating it’s 45th birthday this year so it’s a great time to join them. As I always arrive early to things (London travel is so unpredictable it’s always best to, right?) I got a chance to look around their collection. The library was founded in 1975, originally called the Women’s Research and Resources Centre, the Feminist Library, and has since collected an estimated 5000 books and 1,500 periodicals. Fascinatingly, the library also hold a collection of 500 poetry publications.
I’ll admit, my awareness of feminism isn’t necessarily intersectional, certainly not as intersectional as I’d like. Aside from the ‘classics’ and recent bestseller texts of Moran et al, my knowledge is limited (A-Level Sociology feels like a lifetime ago!). So, I’m looking forward to generally improving my awareness of feminist discourse.
The library is entirely volunteer run, and I will be helping coordinating and setting up different events, as well as assisting in running the administration of the events email account.
Saturday, April 28th, 2018
I visited Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum quite a few months ago now, with the intention of reviewing it. I didn’t quite get around to it at the time, but better late than never. Even if there is only one month today left of the exhibition…
Age of Terror is Imperial War Museum’s newest ‘blockbuster’ exhibition. Focussing on how terrorism has been represented in contemporary art, the exhibition was an engaging and enjoyable access to processing the incomprehensible age of terrorism. Age of Terror includes work by 40 British and international artists, including Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry, Gerhard Richter, Jenny Holzer, Mona Hatoum, Alfredo Jaar, Coco Fusco and Jake & Dinos Chapman.
Although my understanding of art is minimal, I am a big fan of Grayson Perry’s artworks – as his work is predominantly political in nature, I’ve always enjoyed it’s satirical humour. I read a quote the other day, which I paraphrase as ‘satire is only satire if you’re mocking the powerful, otherwise you’re just bullying’. Grayson Perry certainly mocks the powerful. However, this piece is slightly different, Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 (2001) depicts war planes flying over the heads of dolls. While the piece touches upon themes of fear and terror, Perry still uses his signature dark humour to make it accessible and ‘enjoyable’.
One of my favourite pieces was Iván Navarro’s The Twin Towers. It’s inclusion in Age Of Terror (2011), is exhibited in the UK for the first time. ‘The Twin Towers’ is a light installation, one that is an optical illusion that appears as an infinitely concave hole in the ground. Of course the implied meaning is explicit, the infinite holes in the ground reflecting the endless loss of both lives and the magnitude of the buildings themselves.
Age Of Terror, despite Jonathan Jones’ scathing review, is brilliant. While admittedly my knowledge in understanding art in any real sense is limited, Age Of Terror evoked what was likely the curators intention – a sense of how individuals reflect upon our age of terror in different ways and express this loss and fear in a variety of forms.
Open until 28th May
(Image from IWM)
Tuesday, November 21st, 2017
Takeover Day is a celebration of children and young people’s contributions to museums, galleries, arts organisations, archives and heritage sites. It’s a day on which they are given meaningful roles, working alongside staff and volunteers to participate in the life of the museum. On 17 November 2017 over 150 museums were run by almost 4,000 children for Takeover Day, doing the jobs adults usually do. They were pest controllers, tour guides, curators, conservators, interpreters, digital creators, front of house and worked in the shop and café.
November 17th was Kids in Museums Takeover Day – a day where children and young people takeover museums, galleries and heritage sites across England. As a Kids in Museums volunteer, I was invited to help out with Takeover Day at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green to see what the young people were doing over the day and share on the @takeovermuseums twitter account. Slightly terrifyingly, I was also invited to takeover myself, for a couple of hours over the day I also ran V&A Director Tristram Hunt’s twitter account.
I started the day speaking to the young people from the Globe School that had taken over the V&A Museum of Childhood – seeing what they were doing in their assigned roles, taking photos to share on twitter, and chatting to the Marketing and Social Media teams from the V&A South Kensington and Museum of Childhood about content to share from Tristram Hunt’s account.
The young people at the Museum of Childhood were assigned roles: from information desk, security, exhibition assistants, storytellers, archive assistants, and directors – I met with them to discuss their roles and share what they were involved on social media.
Both V&A Museum of Childhood and Kids in Museums are brilliant organisations, both actively spotlighting the importance of young people in museums. Takeover Day was an extension of that, a concentrated day of children and young people gaining ownership in a museum setting.
Sunday, November 19th, 2017
The London, Sugar & Slavery gallery opened in 2007, to mark the 200th anniversary of the end of the British trade in enslaved African people. London, Sugar & Slavery: 10 Years uses some of the thousands of visitor comment cards we’ve received over the past decade to reflect on the gallery and its contents. You can read a wide range of viewpoints, written by visitors from 6 to 93 years old, including school children, grandparents with their grandchildren, and visitors from Europe, the Caribbean, North America and, of course, London. London, Sugar & Slavery is the only permanent display in London to solely focus on the history of the slave trade and slavery. Since 2007 the gallery has been visited by around 2 million people, including 250,000 school pupils.
After knocking off my list most of the central London major museums, including the main Museum of London, I headed down the DLR to Museum of London Docklands last week. While I LOVE (obviously) the Suffragette related section of the Museum of London, apart from that I’ve never been massively struck (apart from the amazing Fire of London exhibition). So, I had pretty low expectations – of which were very quickly surpassed.
Before I went, I read the page quoted above about the visitor cards put on display, which perhaps unusually was what first intrigued me to visit. After visiting the Slavery Museum in Liverpool a couple of years ago, I knew that representations of the heritage of Slavery can be difficult, inevitably. I was intrigued to see how this translated into visitor opinion.
Fascinatingly, not all of the comments were wholly positive. Most of them were, it’s a good exhibition, but not all. For example: “Thank you, but you cannot just close it off in the 1800s just cos it was ‘abolished’ – aftermath? What about the numerous people from Asia? But thank you.” But, what struck most was the importance the display places on visitor comments. There could be the impression that comment cards are a fairly futile activity, compared to the grandness of curation, but the display and labels depicting its importance certainly counter that.
The centre stage given to the visitor comments on display spotlights their fundamental importance to a discussion of a difficult history. Counter to the impression that the museum’s narrative is the only interpretation, the inclusion of negative visitor comments (of course only the constructive criticism) shows that understanding of history develops over time – there isn’t one ‘accurate’ way to share the heritage of slavery.
London, Sugar & Slavery on the whole is open about the complexity of displaying such a contentious topic. At the start of the exhibition, an infographic opens the narrative by confronting terminology. For example, the interpretation intentionally uses the term ‘enslaved Africans’ instead of ‘slaves’. While on the surface, the difference between these terms might appear slight, but of course linguistically the difference is enormous – enslaved Africans represents the people as human, highlighting the victims humanity and African identity that would’ve been taken away when slaves. Consideration of complexities such as this has clearly opened public discussion in a way that may not have been otherwise, which is apparent by the sheer variety of visitor comments.
Curated by Kirsty Warren, a post-doctoral fellow in the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham, the integral necessity of collaboration is highlighted. London, Sugar & Slavery is considerate, compelling, and while contentious makes positive steps to be inclusive and not shy away from the complexities of a difficult history.
Sunday, October 8th, 2017
This exhibition tells the story of the boring beasts that have changed the world: the mundane creatures in our everyday lives including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice. These animals are rarely represented in natural history museum displays. They are not special enough. People would rather see dinosaurs, dodos and giant whales. The Museum of Ordinary Animals gives these commonplace creatures a chance to tell their stories. It begins by asking where ordinary animals came from, followed by the exploration of the themes of Ordinary Animals in culture, in science and in the environment.
I visited the The Museum of Ordinary Animals on the same day as heading to the Can Graphic Design Save Your Life exhibition at Wellcome Collection. A stones throw away from each other, both newly opened, and both small enough to not be entirely museumed out, it made sense to see the two. Both concerning entirely different topics, it was fascinating to see both in the space of a couple of hours.
The Museum of Ordinary Animals, curated by Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby, opens up the collection to a wholly different narrative that natural history collections are presented. Since the renaissance curiosity cabinet era, natural history collections have existed to exhibit the most curious of animals and the most exciting of species. Collections such as the one held by the Grant Museum in University College London are perceived as a space for awe, wonder and amazement. The Museum of Ordinary Animals appears to be the opposite of that, yet it isn’t.
Focussing on ‘ordinary’ animals doesn’t sound like it would be the most fascinating of topics, of course the animals that are on display are the types of animals you see on a regular basis in farms and even in your own homes. But, key to the exhibitions success is the thematic discussion of the importance of these animals, the threads that tie them to our society makes them anything but ordinary.
One particular theme that interested me was the exhibition’s section on recognising controversy, and how we have impacted the natural world around us – often to it’s demise. This section covered eugenics, animal cruelty, and selective breeding. While our worlds would be an entirely different place without domesticated animals, and while it is uncomfortable to recognise the damage we have done to the animal world, The Museum of Ordinary Animals doesn’t shy away from that. The display stems domestication back to its roots, when wolves were first introduced to nomadic societies in a symbiotic relationship, eventually looking at the sheer damage that selective breeding has caused to species such as Pugs. Linking to the devastating results Darwinian thinking has caused to both the animal world, and the human world when adopted by the Nazi party in the 1930’s, the exhibition highlights the chaotic connection that humans and animals hold.
However, aside from that rather difficult section, the rest of the exhibition maintains a sense of humour throughout, acknowledging the rather bizarre relationship that humans and animals have, as well as the curious world of seemingly ordinary animals.
Overall, The Museum of Ordinary Animals certainly encapsulates the “boring beasts that changed the world” in a human way. In putting the spotlight on the animals that are so often ignored by both natural history museum curators, and the visitors themselves, the exhibition recognises the enormous impact that these species have to our planet. As well as being humorous, enlightening and absorbing, The Museum of Ordinary Animal offers a new way to see the animal kingdom and questions our place at the top of it.
21st September to 22nd December 2017. Free admission.
Grant Museum of Zoology. University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT.
Saturday, September 30th, 2017
Explore the relationship between graphic design and health in our current exhibition. Comprising over 200 objects including hard-hitting posters, illuminated pharmacy signs and digital teaching aids, ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’ will consider the role of graphic design in constructing and communicating healthcare messages around the world, and will show how graphic design has been used to persuade, to inform and to empower. This exhibition will highlight the widespread and often subliminal nature of graphic design in shaping our environment, our health and our sense of self. Drawn from public and private collections around the world, it will feature work from influential figures in graphic design from the 20th century, as well as from studios and individual designers working today. ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’ is curated by graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright, founders of publishing house GraphicDesign&, with Shamita Sharmacharja at Wellcome Collection.
I took photographs in an exhibition that has a no photography rule, please don’t have me museum overlords! I made sure to not get any artworks in shot, so no copyright will be infringed. (That makes it totally fine, right?!) But, Can Graphic Design Change Your Life, the newest temporary exhibition from the Wellcome Collection was far too beautiful to not get a quick instagram. The colour palette was to die for, gorgeous pastels to envy a Wes Anderson film demand to be photographed.
Can Graphic Design Change Your Life explores the interweaving connection between graphic design and medicine and health, questioning if our lives would be the same without graphic design.
It would be quite easy to miss the beauty of health products. After all, we tend to only use them when we need to, i.e when we’re ill or injured – perhaps not the time when we are most absorbed in the material culture around us. However, what Can Graphic Design Change Your Life highlights is the beauty in the everyday.
I presumed, entirely wrongly, that the exhibition would explore the ways that graphic design can change your life for the better – when walking in you are confronted with the opposite, showing the glamorous and powerful cigarette adverts from the pre-illegalised era. Juxtaposed, fascinatingly, next to the equally powerful design-fuelled advertisements that highlight the health implications and encourage quitting. As a precursor to the centre of the exhibition, the cigarette section indicates the complexity of where the rest is going to take you – quite different to the simplistic ‘graphic design helps pharmaceutical companies save lives’ that I was naively expecting.
Now, as a long-term Wellcome Collection fan girl (as may be apparent from all the other temporary exhibition reviews featured on this blog) it is no surprise that I loved this exhibition, I’m yet to visit one I didn’t. However, I don’t know much about graphic design, and I certainly don’t know much/anything about the world of medicine and pharmaceuticals. So, from an outsider, what struck me most was the importance graphic design holds in the field of health to transcend language barriers.
Can Graphic Design Change Your Life opens up a dialogue about the importance of visuals in healthcare and how design is intrinsic to the success of medicine, and nestled in the Wellcome Collection’s often either social or scientific exploration of medicine, it was a fascinating addition.
Thursday, September 21st, 2017
Situated within the hospital grounds, in a stunning Art Deco building shared with the Bethlem Gallery, Bethlem Museum of the Mind was formally opened by artist Grayson Perry in March 2015. The museum cares for an internationally renowned collection of archives, art and historic objects, which together offer an unparalleled resource to support the history of mental healthcare and treatment.
Open on the first and last Saturday of the month, at the start of this month I headed over to Bethlem Museum of the Mind. Shortlisted for the 2016 Museum of the Year award, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind tackles a difficult history in a reflective, ethically minded, and accessible exhibitions.
The first thing that is wholly needed in a museum that reflects a difficult history is friendly staff and volunteers. Although the building, situated in the midst of a seemingly intimidating hospital complex, the staff when arriving build a welcoming and accessible atmosphere for it’s visitors. Considering that the museum is likely to have visitors with an personally emotional connection to the heritage on display, as well as the contemporary interpretations, the need for friendly and welcoming staff is not to be underestimated.
I willing tried to not read too much about the Bethlem Museum of the Mind before I visited, wanting to let the building speak for itself. So, perhaps naively, I was surprised by the extent of Grayson Perry’s involvement. The housing of the museum in the Bethlem Royal Hospital is fitting, as the hospital – founded in 1247 – was the first UK institution focussed on caring for the mentally ill.
The space is split into three major spaces, two temporary and one permanent exhibition. The first of which, The Art of Recovery, showcases works created to reflect their experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Statues Melancholy and Raving Madness by Caius Gabriel Cibber then lead you up the stairs to the permanent exhibition.
While I shouldn’t be surprised by a museum that opened in 2015, the permanent gallery is modern and bright. Bethlem Museum of the Mind has perfected the fine tuned balance of having digital interactives without being flashy. Although the museum is clearly new in it’s design, I don’t feel that it will age anytime soon.
Most importantly, the permanent exhibition has no shortage of spaces for reflection. As the museum represents the huge topic of mental health in a physically small site, this decision is clearly intentional. One specific break space that is bright and airy with floor to ceiling windows (not photographed but visible in the video) is situated next to an instillation of solitary confinement padded walls. The juxtaposition of these two polar opposites is striking.
Bethlem Museum of the Mind is engaging, while leaving space for much needed contemplation. Awareness and understanding of mental health is slowly growing, perhaps not fast enough but the museum is leading the way – as well as being an fascinating visit.
p.s, charmingly and delightedly, the man in the first photograph asked if he could pose in my photograph of the building. How could I possibly say no?
Saturday, August 12th, 2017
I didn’t think I’d be typing this sentence onto this little blog any time soon but: I curated an exhibition!
The Wiener Library’s new mini Reading Room exhibition, Theatre and Literature in Concentration Camps, tells the story of resistance through theatre, art and literature.
The Malicious Gossip Law, passed in early 1934, meant that telling an anti-Nazi joke was a crime, the same year infamous anti-Nazi film Hitler’s Reign of Terror was debuted in New York. Despite censorship, culture remained, and this resistance included literature, art, storytelling, underground newspapers, and maintaining religious customs, as well as notably – theatre. Culture thus became means to resist the increasing Jewish dehumanisation in Nazi policy, as ‘theatre was another attempt by the victims to sustain one another and to try to preserve a semblance of normality in an obscenely abnormal universe’ (Rovit, 124).
Theatre, sometimes permitted and sometimes illicit, existed in concentration camps. In Alice Bloemendahl’s experience of literature in Theresienstadt/Terezín was tolerated and permitted by the SS, notably due to Theresienstadt serving an important propaganda function for the Germans. Paul Morgan’s experience in Dachau and Buchenwald however was much different, where any kind of performance was undercover. Yet, in exchange for a bribe, the SS permitted musical instruments (Rovit, 153).
Accounted by Bruno Heilig, a Dachau survivor and journalist and author of factual report and memoir Men Crucified in 1941 wrote:
‘Every Sunday a cabaret performance was given by the artists in the camp. Fritz Gruenbaum, Paul Morgan, Hermann Leopoli, and the Berlin siger Kurt Fuss. At first the idea of starting a cabaret in a concentration camp seemed to us absurd; but it proved a success… These cabaret matinees gave us the illusion of a scrap of freedom. For an hour or two one almost had a sense of being at home’ (Heilig, 121).
The exhibition features a collection of letters by Alice Bloemendahl, who describes the cultural, artistic and intellectual activities in Terezín. This mini exhibition also highlights draft play scripts, newspaper articles, scrapbooks of news cuttings, photographs and ephemera regarding Paul Morgan, founder of Kadeko, Berlin’s famous Cabaret of Comedians. This exhibition, through the striking examples of Alice Bloemendahl, Ben Hecht, and Paul Morgan explores the striking importance of art to psychologically survive, and actively resist, the Holocaust.
Wednesday, August 9th, 2017
To celebrate Book Lovers Day, I’m rounding up my collection of museum related books – from the delightfully accessible to the challenging academic doorstops. Luckily for me, a major perk the University of Leicester Museum Studies course is the per module parcel of all the books needed. Put on top of that a penchant for late-night whim Amazon purchases, and I’ve racked up quite the collection. Despite two years of solid reading around all things museum, I haven’t had enough and am continuing reading for fun – which is a pretty good indicator that I’m working in the right sector.
First up is Museum Revolutions by Simon J. Knell, Suzanne MacLeod and Shiela Watson. As Leicester Museum Studies staff, perhaps it’s slightly bias that I love this one. But, it was the first academic text that I utterly fell in love with, and it continues to shape my practice. Using primarily global case-studies, it was a great introductory piece to the world of museums’ social practice. The chapter by Robert R. Janes called ‘Museums, Social Responsibility and the Future We Desire’ is a personal favourite, with the margins scattered with excited notes.
As a rather pricey whim purchase based off the love of Jane’s chapter, I bought ‘Museums Without Borders’ from the Wellcome Collection gift shop, which heartbreakingly doesn’t take student discount, but was ultimately well worth the money. While academic, the book remains accessible throughout and is an enjoyable train read. Likewise, ‘Gender Sexuality and Museums’ by Amy K. Levin was the fundamental basis of my under graduate dissertation – so will always hold a sentimental place on my bookshelf.
For a more didactic read, somewhere in between academia and train-read-status, is ‘Writing for Museums’ by Margot Wallace. The breakdown into uses of museum writing (i.e. anything from labels to blogs) and discussing the correct and appropriate styles is a useful way to assist emerging museum professionals.
As a bit of an old-school text, I bought a second hand copy of ‘The New Museology’ by Peter Vergo while I was studying for my MA, just to see what all the fuss was about. Of course, parts of it are wholly out-dated, the principle values throughout really resonate with me. And that retro cover, iconic.
Now onto the fun ones. One of my most treasured books is ‘The Secret Museum’ by Molly Oldfield, I stumbled upon it in an Ofxam at an absolute steal for £6.99 – and I’m now horrified that anyone could ever give it away to a charity shop. It’s certainly the most beautiful in this list, the typography and marrying of images and text is stunning, the book almost feels like an art piece in itself.
The most recent addition to my favourites is ‘Curiosities from the Cabinet’ by Rebecca Reynolds, it’s still on my to be read pile, but I can tell just from flicking through that I’m going to love every page – and that cover, you can judge a book by it, I don’t care what they say. To end on an obvious one, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, are you really a museum fan if you don’t own this one? I have it in paperback, Kindle, and have listened to the podcast – obvs.