Conflict brought right up to date

In Museums on March 8, 2018 at 12:58 pm

The war in Syria started on 15 March 2011.  There are more hours of content on YouTube about the war than there have been hours of the actual conflict itself. It might not all be great film content, but it’s certainly evidence of a bewildering and confusing war that continues to make headlines.

Between 15 March and 28 May 2018 Imperial War Museum North is inviting visitors to actively and intimately think about how to make sense of what we hear from Syria – in the news, in print, online. Taking evidence from specific events during the battle of Aleppo in late 2016, the interactive audio experience asks us whether confusion is being used as a weapon to stop the international community from acting. Who controls the fog of war?

This is particularly fitting in IWM North – a building that is designed to confuse and bewilder us. The architecture of the main museum gallery deliberately places visitors in a space where they cannot see all of the room at once . The curves and shards of the walls obscure the entrances and disorient us into a state of mild unease. It’s supposed to be that way, reflecting the notion that when one is in a conflict, one cannot step back, reflect or view situations objectively.

I’ve often thought it makes for a confused visitor experience. But once visitors ‘get’ it, they think it’s rather clever.

When the Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 its task was to document the story of the First World War raging in Europe and around the (then) British Empire.

Today people might tend to think of the IWM as an historical institution that looks back,  telling us stories of conflicts past. With this installation – and with their accompanying exhibition which I’ve reviewed for Northern Soul – they are demonstrating their relevance to the modern day and that they still have the skills to collect and interpret wars in our lifetime.

Programming about contemporary conflict reminds us of the value of museums, collecting things and presenting them to the public, not only to document our world, but also to help us reflect on our part in it.


Belarus doesn’t get many tourists

In Museums, Places on November 13, 2017 at 2:20 pm

“Why have you come here?”

“Tourism.” I smiled a hopefully at the Belarussian border guard.

He inspected our passports at length, only the creaking of his leather boots and the crackle of his cigarette breaking the seemingly endless silence. This uneasy welcome was to be repeated during our stay in Belarus.

It gets perilously cold in Minsk in the winter and the windows of most bars and restaurants in the city are covered over, meaning tourists can’t peek in to see if a venue has any customers, or even if it’s the kind of place one would want to be in anyway. I lost count of the number of times I turned on my heels at the door, realising I’d stumbled into yet another strip club or casino. As soon as we found a place where the waitress wasn’t dressed in underwear we’d use basic Russian and melodramatic pointing to order dumplings and cheap beer.

At the National Art Museum we managed to communicate – via schoolboy French and yet more pointing – that we wanted to enter and, despite the reservations of the cashier, purchase tickets. The only person we found who spoke English in the otherwise empty gallery was the cloakroom attendant. As she took our coats she asked, “Why have you come here?”

“Tourism and museums,” I proffered, and, now emboldened by a few days in the city, “and to see your many beautiful buildings.”

She shrugged. But the buildings are part of why I was there.

Minsk is an architectural time capsule. Looking down the central highway of Nyezhavizhimosty Avenue that links Independence Square and Victory Square you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Soviet Union’s plan for a grand boulevard to rival the Champs-Élysées had been realised. Despite being essentially flattened in the Second World War, Stalin rebuilt the city at speed and in a modern, yet grandiose, style.
The huge concrete blocks don’t quite fit with the classical columns though, the garish colour choices aren’t in keeping with the grand European vista they seek to imitate, and the prominent KGB head office is slightly unnerving. But the endeavour is impressive.

It turns out that even the most hardened fans of lurid concrete and Brutalism can have too much of a good thing. In a moment of weakness we ventured into the Grand Café, somehow untouched by the Belarussian design palette, where we happily found smoked salmon, sirloin steak and Italian espresso for just a few roubles. We also found a bored waitress who spoke fluent English.

“Why have you come here?” she asked, while we gorged ourselves on treats. Sensing she was the first person we’d met who wasn’t an informant we replied honestly, explaining our fascination with Soviet design and architecture and with museums in the post-Soviet world.

“I would love to go to London one day,” she told us, while acknowledging quietly that a trip outside Belarus would be highly unlikely.

“This is a dictatorship,” she concluded while preparing us more martinis. “I still don’t understand why you’ve come here.”

The arts are thriving across the north

In art, galleries, Museums on October 31, 2017 at 3:48 pm

For a few years the predominant news story about the UK arts sector has been about constraints, cutbacks and cost-effectiveness (i.e. doing the same but for less money). But a clutch of new and refurbished art galleries opening across Yorkshire and the north of England have given us all hope that the future for the cultural sector is brighter than might have been thought. Indeed, there’s a sense of optimism in the air. Investment in the region is paying off …

Leeds Art Gallery has just reopened after an extensive refurbishment at a cost of £4 million. While restoration work on the Victorian building was underway a barrelled ceiling was uncovered and has been transformed into a beautiful top-lit space for displaying sculpture. The gallery is once again at the heart of the civic centre of the city, sandwiched between the library and Henry Moore Institute.

Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery also reopened in October after a £3.8 million redevelopment. Here Edwardian architecture has been polished up and combined with new spaces for exhibitions and public events. Their opening exhibition Pioneers of Pop seems to be as fresh faced as the institution now is.

A few miles south, the town of Bishop Auckland is home to a brand new arts venue. The Mining Art Gallery is the first institution of its kind to celebrate art made by miners who worked underground. In an area that has seen so much uncertainty and necessary economic diversification since the decline of coalmining in the area, celebrating the mines and their creative output is seen as a hugely positive step. It’s the first venue to open as part of The Auckland Project which will see more exciting museums and galleries opening in Bishop Auckland in coming years.

Developments such as the revamped The Piece Hall in Halifax and the refitted JORVIK Viking Centre in York are creating economic income for the region from increased tourism, which always benefits the wider arts sector.

And while Hull’s year as UK City of Culture is coming a close this part of the country is also looking forward. The Great Exhibition of the North in summer 2018 will be another focus of artistic talent and activity to keep momentum in the region going.

So rather than doom and gloom, the artistic future of the north is looking rather positive.

Keep the funding, and the visitors, coming.