The importance of a comment card

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.


The Museum of Ordinary Animals

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.

Bethlem museum of the mind

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?




A Good Museum

Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

“We’ve been open since Victorian times, when Frederick John Horniman first opened his house and extraordinary collection of objects to visitors. Since then, our collection has grown tenfold and includes internationally important collections of anthropology and musical instruments, as well as an acclaimed aquarium and natural history collection. Unusually for such an important museum, you can see our collection up-close and face-to-face. You can even pick up, try on and play with some of our objects. Our visitors come time and again to explore our free museum, take part in our activities and enjoy our 16-acre gardens. And they discover something fascinating and mesmerising every time.”

I love a trendy exhibition and a flash interactive as much as anyone, but there is something so quaint and wonderful about a good museum in the way a museum is stereotyped to be.

The Horniman Museum and Gardens were formally opened to the public on 29 June 1901, with Frederick John Horniman’s, the Victorian tea trader and philanthropist, prized collections. While I love living in South London, I’d be the first to admit that there isn’t an enormous amount of museums. Most of my days off are spent the other side of the river. The Horniman Museum and Gardens are a welcome addition to south of the river, and one I’m delighted to live near-ish.

Taxidermy behind glass cases have a bit of stereotype of being stuffy and dull, not that I could ever think that, of course. But Horniman do it well. The Natural History Gallery first opened in 1901, and has on display the expected skeletons, species in jars, and taxidermy, with the looming giant 100 year old walrus taking center stage. How Horniman manage to steer away from the stuffy and dull stereotype, for me, is context. Each case and display is there to depict a certain story, be that classification, adaptation, or evolution. These stories are further brought to life with the Hands on Base Gallery, with real objects to handle and even wear.

Of course, the stunning gardens are a highlight to the museum, 16 acres worth! Even hosting a Horniman Farmers’ Market every Saturday. Basically, any museum that (ethically) has live animals, is a winner for me. The Horniman Museum has an ‘Animal Walk’ that keeps alpacas, goats, sheep, guinea pigs, rabbits, chickens.

I didn’t get chance to see Robot Zoo, and perhaps even if I did, I’d be slightly shy to visit without a child? But, from what I can tell from the marketing materials about it, it sounds brilliant. Have you been?

“This family-friendly exhibition features larger-than-life animals that have been innovatively recreated using a variety of familiar machine parts and gadgets to reveal how their real life counterparts see, eat, hunt and hide. Interactive exhibits also give you the chance to try jet-propelled squid racing, shoot a chameleon’s ‘tongue-gun’ and even design your own ‘mutant’ robot creature.”

Take a seat with Josef Frank

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

“Explore the work of designer and artist Josef Frank (1885-1967) in the first-ever UK exhibition of his textiles. The Austrian-born architect moved to Sweden in 1933, where he developed his colourful brand of modernism, working with Estrid Ericson on furniture, glassware, lighting and interior design ideas. Together they redefined what is regarded as Swedish Modern. This exhibition in association with Millesgården, Stockholm highlights Frank’s vibrant fabric designs for Svenskt Tenn alongside a number of his previously unknown watercolours.” 

I didn’t realise that the Fashion and Textile Museum only holds temporary exhibitions, I went to the museum quite blindly, expecting the stereotypical image of ‘fashion museum’ with mannequins scattered with 1920’s flapper dresses. However, between the 28th January to 7th May, the Fashion and Textile Museum has hosted the Joseph Frank: Patterns, Furniture and Painting exhibition, in association with Millesgården museum, celebrating the architect, artist, and designer. Curated by Dennis Nothdruft, the exhibition is the first ever dedicated to Franks work, and explores Josef Frank’s works within his social and religious background. Josef Frank was born an Austrian Jew, and fled to Stockholm with his Swedish wife in 1933, to escape growing Nazism. Beautifully and poignantly, the vibrancy of Franks style is in a direct opposite to his contemporary fears in the political and social climate, of course felt most heavily within his Jewish faith and heritage.

What struck me most about the exhibition was the accessibility. While I appreciate the beauty of the work, I went in with no prior knowledge of Frank’s work. By the time I’d left, I adored it. Throughout the exhibition were sofas, armchairs and seats all made in the fabric that the exhibition was there to celebrate. The textiles are displayed as both a grand and authoritative persona when displayed on the walls, while at the same time as accessible, physical and functional as part of the visitor experience. Viewing textiles, in a paid museum, can be an intimidating experience. I could’ve felt out of my depth. But, the curation by Dennis Nothdruft and the Fashion and Textile Museum make the visitor experience comfortable. While simple, the physical act of sitting on a comfortable chair, in my opinion, is not to be underestimated.

Not just textiles, the exhibition also displays Franks not often seen watercolours. As a man of many talents, he created, combining his love for art and architecture, with charming results. His ‘fantasy houses’ are the most impressive. Designed without the intention on ever being built, Frank’s thirteen fantasy houses took shape during 1947, inspired by modern architecture, often built with friends in mind who could live in them. This escapism into his fantasy estate, for me, summed up the exhibition, a story of Frank’s innovative and eccentric design in an era of political turmoil. The Josef Frank Patterns-Furniture-Painting three month exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum is an insight into Josef Frank’s take on modernist design, his growing understanding and processing of the horror in Jewish 1930’s Europe, and his beautiful botanical designs are one of a kind to see.




Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Readers of this blog will know i know nothing about art, and luckily I’ve never set up a precedent of pretending to. So, this ‘review’ of the Guggenheim will, I guess, be a from a visitors perspective, not altered by any underlying biases of museum study.

Basically, I loved it.

Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, The Guggenheim is obviously stunning. The building is on three levels, centred around the Atrium, connected with curved walkways. Surrounded by the river, and the red and orange old buildings of Bilbao, the stone, glass and titanium building is an unmissable contrast. You know you’re in Bilbao if you can see the Guggenheim.

My favourite work, and probably most visitors favourite work, was Richard Serra’s installation The Matter of Time. It was fun, which is what art galleries often have the stereotype of not being. I sort of understood the meaning, it definitely was a unforgettable, dizzying feeling. More than that, it’s unusual finding a maze in an art gallery, people were enjoying it, whether they understood the context or not.

“The Matter of Time allows the viewer to perceive the evolution of the artist’s sculptural forms, from the relative simplicity of a double ellipse to the complexity of a spiral. The last two pieces of this sculpture are created from sections of toruses and spheres that produce different effects on the movement and perception of the viewer. These are unexpectedly transformed as the visitor walks through and around them, creating an unforgettable, dizzying feeling of space in motion. The entire room is part of the sculptural field.”

The Guggenheim is a tourists dream, myself included. The building, Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider sculpture, Maman, is an impressive photo opportunity. Almost 9 meters tall, Maman is a reflection of Bourgeois’ relationship with her mother, as a symbol of both strength and fragility in maternity. But, of course, it’s prime selfie background. Likewise Jeff Koons’ Puppy, the West Highland terrier carpeted in bedding plants sits outside guarding the entrance. The Tulips, also by Jeff Koons, the bouquet of balloon flowers, that are 2 meters tall and 5 meters across, lay on a balcony overlooking the river.

Bilbao is a beautiful city, and one I’d recommend to anyone for a city break. The Guggenheim is an accessible, fun, and exciting gallery. And has taught me that I’m drawn to large scale art..


Can Museums challenge Youtube?

Monday, March 27th, 2017

“Curated by members of the local LGBT+ community, this unique exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, exploring and celebrating those who campaigned and continue to campaign for equality for LGBT+ people.  The exhibition details the development of an LGBT+ movement, showing the internal and external struggles, the different party political approaches to equality, and the social and historical context of the last sixty years of activism.  This is the complex and compelling story of a long and often bumpy journey.”

Perhaps you’re not that into Youtube, fair enough, who really needs to know what lipstick Zoella likes recently. But, what is important, important enough to write a blog post about, is Youtube’s blocking of LGBTQ+ videos, while on their ‘restricted mode.’ (Read more about it on Buzzfeed here, where it’s much more eloquently described.)

Youtube’s blocking of LGBTQ+ content was met with mixed response. Some on the side of the fence of “it protects children from sexually explicit content” and others on the side of “HOW CAN THIS BE, blocking LGBTQ+ content is homophobic and dangerous.” Me? I think I’m still on the fence, with my leg dangling on the side of HOW CAN THIS BE. Although sitting on the fence is painful, uncomfortable, and only a temporary place to sit, literally or metaphorically.

So, this is a museum blog after all, back to museums. I visited the Never Going Underground exhibition at the Peoples History Museum this month, not long before finding out about the Youtube news. When the Youtube news came out, it got me thinking about the similarities between social media and museums, in terms of what they are to society. Now, perhaps I’m too millennial, but both, to me, are integral parts of society. My entire masters dissertation was about social media, so I definitely am too millennial. Social media, to those who use it, is a way to communicate, both individual stories and community narratives. Sound familiar? So are museums.

Peoples History Museum is always forward thinking, it’s the main reason it’s one of my favourite museums in the country. Never Going Underground is (unfortunately) brave. It is complex, enlightening, sad, joyful, humorous, dark, and curated expertly in perhaps a way no other museum could. I’m fascinated by how it was curated by volunteers from the local LGBT+ community, but definitely not surprised, who else could it be curated by? Never Going Underground presents the LGBTQ+ community, in my subjectively cis-het perspective, perfectly. People’s History Museum does what it does best, a timeline, a cracking timeline. Seeing the development from homosexuality being a crime, to it’s (ish) acceptance today, you can see how far we’ve come as a society, and how far we have left to go. It also portrays perfectly the complex vastness of the LGBTQ+ community, and doesn’t shy away from the racism and transphobia that exists within organisations such as Pride. But ultimately, Never Going Underground shows the resilience, strength, and vibrancy of the LGBTQ+ communities past, present and future. Also, how incredible are the family friendly bags, and when will they be available at all museums? Soon, I hope.

If museums, and social media broadly, but looking at Youtube in particular, blocks or hides these stories, what happens next? While I understand* the right to conservative beliefs, and the desire of those beliefs to ‘protect’ children from sexuality they are not mature enough to process until adulthood, blocking those stories is more than just ‘protecting children.’ If the excuse is there that it is protecting children, it inherently implies that it is a bad thing to need that protection from. If our museums don’t have LGBTQ+ displays, there is the implication that those stories are hidden for a reason, that they are bad stories, that should be hidden.

I wholeheartedly recommend following Queering Museums, particularly their brilliant podcast that has come out recently, on the matter. One day London will have a museum dedicated to LGBTQ+ stories, and I will be there on the opening weekend, with pride.


*by understand, I mean I can empathise with having views different to my own.

Spark Of Life

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The story of electricity is the story of life itself. From the structure of the atom to the functioning of our brains, this invisible yet vital force is intrinsic to human life. For centuries electricity has captivated inventors, scientists and artists alike, and in the modern era it has transformed our world.

What Wellcome Collection does well, both in it’s permanent and temporary exhibitions, is find that unique blend between science and society. As a scientific collection, it would perhaps be more straightforward to display the collection for what it is, science. Curatorial decisions however, pluck out the human stories, the social and the personal. This is no different for Wellcome Collection’s newest temporary exhibition, Electricity: The Spark of Life. Opened on the 23rd of February and running until the 25th of June, The Spark of Life is to be the blockbuster exhibition of Spring. (Sorry, Making Nature: How we see animals, you got beat here)

The exhibition is divided into three sections: Generation, Supply, and Consumption. Much like how the Making Nature: How We See Animals exhibition is, coming to think of it. The three sections Generation, Supply, and Consumption are separated by contemporary commissioned videos.

Generation, the first section is shrouded in darkness. Most objects centred around the 18th century, links to religion are throughout. As ever with the Wellcome Collection, there is a blend of art and objects that highlight the themes it represents. Themes of ethics, humanity, and enlightenment set up the rest of the exhibitions narrative. Most poignantly is the consideration of ethics. Frankenstein by Mary Shelly is a key bookmark in the storytelling of this era. As summarised in an exhibition label, Mary Shelly’s “keen interest in electricity and the reanimation experiments prompted by Galvinism is said to have been the central inspiration for her gothic novel, in which she describes the creature as infused with a “spark of being”” This narrative is displayed in three juxtaposed interpretations: a film of the 1931 Frankenstein playing, an edition of the book on display, as well as the Galvani experiment equipment. Blending objects from different disciplines is what Wellcome does best and it does it so well in Electricity: The Spark of Life.

Supply: Wiring The World is headed by X. Laevis (Spacelab) by John Gerrard (2017) which explores the Galvinist experiments in reanimation that have been considered before it. Moving into Consumption: the Silent Servant is headed by Electricity by Bill Morrison (2017) commissioned by the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, which again brought the human element to the exhibition, in that it explores the profound impact electricity has on our lives.

What impressed me most about Electricity: The Spark of Life, was the subtle curatorial decisions. Perhaps the gradually improving lighting is an obvious one, as much as I’d like to think I have an expertise in noticing these things. But, what was more subtle, was the gradual improving of the exhibition cases “quality.” Moving from wood, to brass, to steel exhibition design meant the exhibition itself moved with the content and theme.

The exhibition, like is often the case at Wellcome Collection, ends in the present and future of the story it tells. The last space considers climate change, energy consumption and what it means for our society to be so dependent upon energy for survival. What I assume to be, or what was definitely for me, the highlight piece of the exhibition. January 2017 Horoscope by Camille Henrot, is a newly commissioned piece, which considers the vast consumption the last section of the exhibition opens. Strobe lighting and animation is used to create a moving image of hands and a lighter setting an energy bill alight, as well as origami energy bill frogs jumping. The piece is striking visually, and it’s dark tone of the dangerous levels of consumption of energy end the Electricity: The Spark of Life perfectly.



A Temple in London

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Ever since reading The Museum, a Temple or the Forum by Duncan F. Cameron, most museum visits for me have a background noise of thinking which they are, a forum or a temple.

I visited the British Museum this week, for a lecture on the upcoming The American Dream exhibition. Opening on the 9th of March for three months, the exhibition will explore American culture, centred around American printmaking from the 1960s to the present. Curator Stephen Coppel discussed the pieces in their relation to gender and race issues that have been addressed in the prints, and have existed as social issues in America. As the lecture was delivered in the grand lecture theatre, above the Great Court space, the Temple or Forum debate sat in the back of my mind.

British Museum is perhaps the pinnacle of the ‘Temple’ stereotype. Often didactic interpretation, grand architecture, it literally looks like a Temple. It’s so easy to get lost in the British Museum, both psychically and intellectually. The globally and chronologically broad collection tells so many stories it’s easy to lose sight of individual objects and individual narratives.

I’ll admit my bias from the get-go, I prefer a smaller museum. Big crowds, tourists, and screaming children do little for me, no matter how great the collection is. So while I’m thinking about museums elitism, perhaps I should consider my own personal elitism as a visitor. The age old argument that interactives are ruining the experience of museums for some, like the one linked here, is never going away, and it’s one I struggle to balance while visiting a major museum. Intellectually, of course I know the value of interactives, and family engagement. Personally however? That’s perhaps a little different.

But, back to the Temple or the Forum debate, which ones museums are, and which they should be. There is something quintessential and nostalgic about the Temple template museum. Grandiose marble staircases and peering through glass to see a cabinet of labels and objects evokes that sense of what a stereotypical museum visit should be. Perhaps this should be enough. Surely the collection at the Science Museum is enough to engage, is Wonderlab necessary to maintain our depleting attention spans? Maybe it is.

Without delving too much into that controversial extreme caricature of what I don’t completely believe, to  next consider the Forum template museum. The forum ideal is ultimately where my heart is. Yes, as an adult visitor, with a considerable interest in museums before walking in the door, and without children, perhaps the piece and quiet of the interactive museum would fit me best. But, unfortunately, the world doesn’t yet revolve around me. Ultimately, museums work best when they work for all. Without believing that it’s possible for museums to be perfect for the multitude of subjective opinions that walk in the door, there should of course at least be an attempt to address every visitors needs, and attempt the tricky balance to facilitate accordingly.

This slightly controversial, mainly satirical, blog post is written with the intention of weaving through my own complicated opinions on the matter. What do I want museums to be (as one day I might rule the museum world, of course), and what works best for both the current audience, and to engage audiences currently excluded. Ultimately, museums can never be wholly a Temple, or wholly a Forum. Even if they could, neither would quite work.

Herb Garret and the Theatre

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

I’ve never been a fan of the term “hidden gem”, nothing in London is really hidden with a quick Google search and a read of a Guardian review too see if it’s any good. But, gem, oh it certainly is a gem. I visited The Old Operating Theatre last week, after a friend recommended it, and I fell head over heels. (Not literally may I add, although I was surrounded by medical equipment so I guess it wouldn’t of been the worst place.) The Old Operating Theatre is just underneath the looming Shard, even though the museum isn’t really that small, below the Shard anything would seem small.

The last thing it would be described as is accessible. 34 winding, narrow spiral stairs lead up to the space. After, although I’m admittedly unfit, a few gasps for breath, I was greeted by the most welcoming front of house staff I’ve ever met. She was friendly and helpful, more than I’ve seen before in all of my museum visits. I wish I’d caught her name to send a thanks to the museum.

The space is split into two areas. The museum and the Theatre itself. While the Theatre was stunning, I was most struck by the museum. Set in the attic of the old church building, architecturally the space already felt magical. Built in 1703, the attic, or Herb Garrett, was the space in which the medicinal herbs were stored, ready to be taken down to the Theatre.

What surprised me most was the extent of public engagement in the Herb Garrett museum. It may seem pessimist, but I was expecting a traditional curiosity cabinet. In many ways, it was that, jars behind glass cases. But, there was ample encouragement for visitor engagement at every turn. Herbs to smell, activity sheets for children and hidden little fun facts. What also surprised me was the explicit recognition of the humanity in the collection. There were notices surrounding the human organs to not take photographs, and an explanation as to why, being respectful of the people who were once alive. While this is something I wholeheartedly believe in, sometimes it is missed by museums, who care more for the exciting gore of a brain in a jar.

I was expecting the Theatre to be the highlight of my visit, the physicality of walking through the viewing platform, taking in the grand space and recollecting what it would’ve been. This wasn’t the case. The Theatre, although fascinating, ended up being the footnote of an incredible museum.