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Sunday, 19 March 2017

Queer City

When the National Trust and National Archive’s collaborate you’d expect there usual crowd of Barbour wearing, cream tea eating over sixties to be huddle together over boxes of archives in a stately home wouldn’t you? Well the collab between the two powerhouses has been a bit of a shocker with their recent joint offer – Queer City. Using the photographs, court reports, police papers and witness statements The Caravan ‘London’s most bohemian rendezvous’ has reopened for March 2017 and best of all for an evening you can become a member and head back to the thirties.

Giving an insight into the clandestine queer clubs of the city in the 1930’s the project showcases the club culture of the 1930’s when being openly gay would lead to prosecution and imprisonment.  Heading into the club above Soho fave Frevd bar the recreation is a step back in time, passing your name to the door tender and moving behind draped fabrics into a smoke filled room or music, laughter and chat a number of immersive theatre performers adorn the space and waiters provide cocktails inspired by the era. Sexual innuendo features in all of the performances and references to the main participants of the day are noted in the decoration – the original owner of the club Jack Neaves was a strongman and escapologist and a sculpture of him holds up the ceiling whilst names of those noted in the court documents are names of the performers. It’s an exciting recreation of a historical moment in time.

Nonetheless the scary reality of the clandestine clubs are also recognised, the front of the bar is littered with quotes from the archives of the assumed ‘digusting and revolting’ club.  And an actor takes me into a backroom to berate me and write a police report on my decision to attend such a club. It’s a stark reminder that we are only fifty years from the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain and many prejudices remain today.
This project forms part of a larger one from the National Trust their prejudice and pride project explored how many of their properties have been ‘shaped by those who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality’ and follows an even larger movement in UK heritage organisations in 2017 to reflect on the legacy of those whose stories may not have been fully told fifty years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
All great projects and great work from the institutions and especially from this collaboration I experienced a really innovative way to look at the history of a group through experience and this was an excellent way to bring archives to life.
It's only open until 26th March so get in there quick!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

A very personal relationship with Robots

You may have noticed that while we try to bring you an insiders guide into the life of museum workers we can be a bit reluctant here to shout about or review exhibitions we have been working on. While we champion the use of social media for museum staff it can be a conflicting relationship to review an exhibition you have put together yourself. So I tend to keeping any reference to that on my own personal accounts.

Nonetheless some of you will probably be aware that I recently moved jobs from Collections Registration Coordinator at the Science Museum to Registrar at the National Army Museum, leaving the Science Museum was an emotional decision especially as I had put over a year of my blood, sweat and tears into one of the best exhibitions ever (yep this is a totally biased review) Robots!

As the Collections Registration Coordinator on the exhibition I was responsible for negotiating the loans of all of the objects in the exhibition on display in London and the subsequent tour, so these objects in all of their humanoid form became my friends that I didn’t get to meet until the opening night – unfortunately I terminated my contract only a couple of months before install started – so my review is going to focus around the many many loans this exhibition offers.

An insight into the history of humanoid robotics the exhibition takes you from the early automata used in churches right up to the lab robots of today. Now, it would be impossible for me to write a short and snappy blog if I was to take a journey through the whole exhibition so a few of my favourites and highlights of the show are:

The Bowes Swan
I mean, a huge silver swan! That’s an automata! This object really is one of a kind, dating from around 1773 the swan is one of the earliest automata’s that is still operating today and its pretty flashy! Back in 1774 the swan was a crowd puller at the Mechanical Museum of James Cox  (a London based dealer) and now the Science Museum is well and truly blessed to get this object down to London for the exhibition so its only there for the first six weeks of the show!

Cygan quite definitely is my favourite object in this exhibition, he was my first loan in for the show and holds a very very dear place in my heart.  He has a bad boy past, having spend some time as a showman in strip clubs and has found love in recent years with his owner in the USA, an 8 foot high gentle giant he can walk, talk and dance with the ladies as showcased in this great film. The perfect example of a fifties robot ready to help around the home and be an aluminium beast.

The fourth section of the exhibition has some incredible pieces from current roboticists – who are an absolute joy to work with. There’s some robotic legs – saved by curator Ben Russell from underneath a staircase in north London, ROSA a highly intelligent 3D printed skeletal robot and in it and my favourite interactive – the ultimate machine for an exhibition so high tech its so simple. Nexi is a beautiful disproportionate and creepy looking expressive robot developed to work with humans in uncertain environments. Gizmodo call this one an emo robot 


Icub robots are incredible, you can catch them on youtube dancing to the Arctic monkeys and again this is a personal favourite because it was an interesting one to negotiate and it felt really emotional seeing it on exhibition as the exit piece in the exhibition its placed to make you consider what the future of robotics is  because its so innovative its an open sourced robot and develops in a similar way to a four year old child.

Robots is open at the Science Museum until 3rd September then heading on a UK and international tour - be sure to catch it!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

More than a pretty woman: Emma Hamilton at the NMM

We have been wanting to make it down to Greenwich to see the National Maritime Museum's Emma Hamilton exhibition for aaaages. I mean, the Guardian gave it a five star review, and we hear some of its text panels are being used as best practice examples at MA workshops. This is besides the fact that its an exhibition about a woman, a rare beast for a museum, and certainly for a maritime museum at that. That the NMM took up the cause of a woman who is famous for being Nelson's mistress is interesting, and one imagines a concerted move on their part to be a bit more innovative with their maritime history remit. Well, it worked. Emma is engaging and intimate, drawing you through the museum's beautiful new exhibition space with ease. Her journey through the political turbulence of the late eighteenth century is fascinating, you certainly leave having a better appreciation for the life of an extraordinary woman.

The exhibition opens with a quote from Lady Hamilton herself, 'I wish to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool'. That Emma was beautiful is abundantly clear throughout the exhibition. Indeed, her beauty was the source of her fame and meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the society. It was her nymph-like face which led her to become the muse of George Romney and ultimately a household name in Georgian Britain. Her beauty also got her into much of the trouble in her life. An affair with a gentleman which began in a brothel ended in her being pregnant. She struck a bargain with another aristocrat, Charles Greville, to look after herself and her child. When Greville tired of her, he literally passed her over to his uncle (if you were here I'd murder you and myself both- she wrote to Greville in a rage). Emma spent much of her life being treated as a commodity. But there is absolutely no doubt that she was a woman making the best of her circumstances. 

The exhibition has to toe a rather fine line as it tried to exonerate the historic impression that Emma was nothing more than a harlot who seduced Admiral Nelson into an adulterous relationship. While it is abundantly clear that Emma was charismatic and artistically challenging, late eighteenth century women simply didn't have the independence to be the kind of kick ass feminist hero museum-goers might like to hear about. Emma didn't really have a choice but to be 'looked after' by wealthy men, to give up her illegitimate children, to turn to prostitution when times were hard. The extent to which Emma had genuine feelings for some of the men in her life is a bit confusing- did she truly fall head over heels each time? Or was she more interested in looking after her position? The exhibition seems to suggest she was a passionate woman who truly did love her conquests. Her love letters with Nelson are particularly touching and sincere. 

Personally I was the most interested in the part of the exhibition related to Emma's time in the Neapolitan court during the Napoleonic wars. Having married the British Envoy to Naples, Emma became a close confident of the Royal Family, and in particular Queen Maria Carolina, who was also sister to Marie Antoinette. Emma's role as an intermediary between the Neapolitan Queen and the British Navy was crucial to the success of Nelson's battle of the Nile. Emma's political acumen is more difficult to communicate in an exhibition and its perhaps less enticing than her home making with Nelson, or her portraits by Romney. But to me, this is really the heart of the exhibition. Emma was beautiful yes, but she was also courageous and wanted to prove her worth to the highest levels of society. As Amanda Vickery comments in the exhibition, Emma was a woman who refused to be defined by class. 

The exhibition design I also have to say was flawless. Throughout it is full of thoughtful touches which recall the importance of the theatre to Emma's career. Indeed, it feels like walking through a luxurious theatre-set of Emma's life, and in one instance literally becomes that. I absolutely loved the rooms made to evoke her 'Paradise Merton', her home with Nelson, complete with flickering candle effects. Emma becomes much more than just an artistic muse, but a really living breathing person who was looking for love and some sense of stability. The display of Romney paintings is equally awe inspiring. 

The NMM's exhibition is nuanced and empathetic, and will leave you even more intrigued by the life and times of Emma Hamilton. While this isn't really the focus of the exhibition, I think Emma provides a fascinating sense of late eighteenth century society, weaving quack medicine, salon society, music halls, and political turbulence. She might not be quite a feminist icon by 21st century standards, but the exhibition certainly does her justice as an ambitious and determined woman in a complex world. This is Emma on Emma's terms. 

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity is on at the National Maritime Museum until the 17th of April. 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

V&A Launch: Lockwood Kipling

It may have taken a fair few years but finally the Ministry of Curiosity has made it to a V&A launch party! The launch of Lockwood Kipling opening was not as debauched as the rumours from the Alexander McQueen show but nonetheless it was a full on cocktail-swigging-canapé-eating opening in the grand entrance of the beautifully lit V&A!

Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab is the first exhibition of many events, displays and celebrations of the relationship and bilateral exchange between UK and India marking 70 years since partition and lead by the British Council.  With a vast South Asian collection, the 2015 India festival and Fabric of India exhibition the V&A is a key player in this year of festivities. The Kipling exhibition is yet another way to showcase the exchanges between the countries and solidify the museum’s leading collection.

But who was Lockwood Kipling? He was a key cultural asset in British India through his work as an art teacher, illustrator and museum curator. As Principal of the Mayo School of Arts, Lahore he was influential in the commercial influence of crafts, promoting indigenous artist through apprentices and campaigning through the publication ‘The Journal of Indian Art.’
The exhibition explores how the Great Exhibition of 1851 influenced Lockwood Kipling himself and the V&A founded their collection as the South Kensington Museum on the fair. With a number of objects from the 1851 exhibition displayed alongside a beautiful print from the Queen’s collection showcasing the India gallery. 
The Great Exhibition: India no. 4, by Joseph Nash, about 1851. Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016

The influence of the Great Exhibition reached far and wide and later similar fairs were shown across the world and between 1865 and 1900 Lockwood organised and curatored the Indian displays at 28 international fairs from Glasgow to Melbourne his passion for Indian arts and craft went beyond the relationship he represented in Britain and India.
But of course, Lockwood Kipling was more than his influential career. He was father to Rudyard Kipling (Yep Jungle Book!) and his personal relationships are exposed through his illustrations for his sons book and my favourite object in the exhibition is the Confessions book, belonging to his wife Alice’s sister in which asked for his ideas of happiness he wrote ‘ a ripe mango in the bath with a cigar’

The V&A at night 

Lockwood Kipling is a great start to the UK-India year of culture and I certainly enjoyed the whisky sours and tandoori monkfish  at the opening  but I’m hoping that the year of culture brings out some more controversial and less imperialistic interpretations of the relationships between the countries.  

The exhibition is open until April 2nd 2017. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Taking risks at the Wellcome's Making Nature

What is Wellcome’s Making Nature about? Usually with museum exhibitions the answer is either a famous artist or individual (Bowie, Lockwood Kipling, Rauschenberg) or a theme which can typically be summed up in one word (underwear, Modernism, maps, mental health). Making Nature is about, well, exactly that. The idea that nature is a construct manufactured by human action and, more specifically, museums. Pretty conceptual for an exhibition right? This perhaps why the Wellcome hasn’t received universally glowing reviews for this one (see for example this Guardian think piece). When you build a show on a concept, people can disagree. It’s probably why most museum’s don’t do it. But it’s also why ALL MUSEUMS SHOULD. Making Nature is the thought-provoking, risk-taking exhibition you’ve been waiting for from the Wellcome. And we love it.

Richard Ross, Muséum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 © the artist

If Making Nature had only been one room, it still would have been the best thing I’ve seen a museum do in ages. The first gallery had everything you could want from a gallery of art and science. Entitled ‘ Ordering’, the opening to the exhibition does a fantastic job of demonstrating how a museum can communicate a complex idea. The concept is just that, how humans have ordered the world. From the Bible to Linneaus to Bonnet’s ladder of natural being, humans have been trying to rationalize and categorize the world around them from day one. Archival documents are used to great effect – providing a sense of history and context, but without being too ‘this is a history lesson’. A poster of Juliana Pastrana, the Bearded Lady, asks us to consider what happens when something defies categorization. If you weren’t scared by the hidden taxidermy fox, you are lying. I genuinely jumped.

Roger Fenton, Skeleton of Man and of the Male Gorilla (Troglodytes Gorilla) II, c.1855 © Victoria and Albert Museum,

Making Nature is full of unusual display techniques, but they are all for a purpose. The idea that a curator has suggested this off the wall exhibition, conceptual design and someone said – yes we will support you in that, heartens me. We are not an industry that has to put out cookie cutter exhibitions. The Wellcome knew full well that putting taxidermy animals in unusual places (ie dead on the floor) would upset some people. But that’s kind of the point. The animals serve a dual purpose: to push you to think about conservation (there’s a reason why they’ve picked the examples they have cough badger) and to mix up the way we are used to viewing animals. Animals go in nice dioramas where they look like they are alive, right? Yeah but we made that. And that’s the point.

Richard Ross, British Museum, Natural History, London, England 1985 © the artist
I don’t want to go into every single detail and spoil the visit for you. Let’s just say, you’ll never look at Richard Owen’s ‘cathedral to science’ (aka the Natural History Museum) the same way again. Or the ZSL Zoo for that matter. But I did just want to say a few words about the last room about Postnatural History. It’s clear from the get-go that this room has been curated by someone different. The reliance on speakers to tell the narrative is a little jarring, and not all of the displays seem to fit in exactly with the theme as it explained in the room label. And while this was a bit off-putting for me at first, I’ll forgive it because its just so damn interesting. The Centre for Postnatural History is interested in how we are making new animals and purposefully modifying the natural world. From multi-coloured budgies to radioactive rodents to bacteria which has learned to say hello, are we looking at a nature which is no longer natural? The stories in this room are bizarre and somewhat frightening.

Transgenic mosquito (Aedes agypti), 2009, Pinned specimen © Center for PostNatural History

Making Nature is without a doubt challenging. It’s challenging to audiences who think they know about nature and how it works. Challenging to traditional exhibition design. And to be honest, morally challenging. Importantly, its self-reflective on the part of the museum community. How as we as institutions profoundly changed the way people understand nature, and in consequence, the way people use natural resources. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Nature is about love not manipulation (oh please). As the parrots say, all nature ever did was love us, and how have we repaid them? Making Nature is what I hope museums are moving towards. Exhibitions that are complex, challenging, and invite comment. Something that moves beyond that one word catchy theme or celebrity subject. I can’t wait for Part 2!