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Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

My own column!

In Museum [Insider], Museums, new content on March 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm

I’ve had two new pieces published on Museum [Insider] in the last week or so.

The first is about the Bletchley Park Trust, who are at the start of a major redevelopment of the visitor experience at their site after receiving development funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The money is there to help them develop plans and submit a full HLF bid in the next two years. The article describes their plans and outlines the funding news on the project. There are also some contracts up for grabs at the moment, which M[I] subscribers can see using the Project Tracker tool.

The other article is a commentary piece about cross-cultural collaboration, inspired by a recent visit to the newly opened Enchanted Palace exhibition at Kensington Palace. They’ve achieved wonderful things there and created a very special exhibition through working in collaboration with a theatre company and group of fashion designers. The piece calls for more of this kind of collaboration. Working with unlikely partners can yield fantastic results.

The commentary piece is the first in a new stream of articles I’ll be writing for M[I] about heritage trends. I’ve got my own column – and there’s a picture of me on the homepage. Very exciting!

Interpretive see-saw at the NPG

In Museums on March 24, 2010 at 9:51 am

I visited the National Portrait Gallery last week to see their two temporary exhibitions. I found them to be quite different.

Irving Penn: Portraits was a beautiful show with a great wealth of sitters from this eminent 20th-century photographer. From Cecil Beaton and Truman Capote to Woody Allen and Arthur Miller (via Igor Stravinsky and Audrey Hepburn), it’s a rollercoaster through the who’s who of the second half of the last century.

But while the pictures are all wonderful, I felt as if it was lacking some story. I got a sense of how his portraiture changed over time, but only in a very basic way – he stopped taking full-length photographs and moved away from grimy settings to intimate close ups. Other than that, the context was pretty weak.

Each section is introduced by a piece of panel text on the wall – not reproduced in the booklet, alas – and then it’s just the pictures with their sitter’s name and sometimes a one-liner in the book. Not knowing much about Penn, I even had to leave the exhibition space to check when he was born on the title panel, as it wasn’t included in the show! But that said, I had a lovely time in there and saw some beautiful things, very elegantly displayed, given the number of images in a small room.

By comparison, The Indian Portrait 1560-1860 was the polar opposite. This exhibition sets itself a prospect to the visitor in the title. My main question as I entered the space was – why those dates? I’ve still no idea. The material all fits in that date range, but there’s no explanation of why.

Here, my search for contextual material and story was not necessary as the very clear visual language of the space let me know what I needed to do, how the pictures were grouped and clearly showed me where the contextual information was. But alas, the interpretation of the paintings stopped there.

These aren’t the easiest paintings to access if you’re not used to looking at them. They’re so incredibly detailed in places and have wonderful depictions of life – at court and in myths and legends. The labels – now thankfully present – seemed to spend most of their time talking about contextual history though, and not what we can actually see in front of us.

But again, I had a great time in there, delving into the history of Indian portrait painting and spotting the trends and differences between periods, styles and artists. They’ve secured some amazing loans in, which is testament to the lobbying power of the NPG.
It’s just a shame that in one of these exhibitions I was left craving context. And in the other – where context was present – I was still left wanting substance. The permanent galleries of the NPG are great at writing about what visitors can see in front of them. Perhaps some of that could filter into their interpretive text in exhibitions as well.

Happiness formula?

In happiness, what i'm reading on March 21, 2010 at 12:04 pm

A few years ago the BBC ran a series of programmes and web articles about happiness, and the potential ‘formulas’ to which one might subscribe in order to try and achieve it.

I remember at the time that this was a rather interesting prospect and have, since then, began working on a book about happiness. The idea is to unpack how we think about happiness in a modern context, by looking back at what’s been written in the past and by talking to people today about how they relate to the subject.

I use this website almost as a repository for my ideas and research into the subject of happiness and what it means to us today, so while  I am here directing any readers of this blog toward the BBC’s archive of the programmes,  I’m also jotting it down for myself as an aide memoire.

Henry Moore – everywhere!

In Dulwich OnView, Museums, new content on March 19, 2010 at 9:56 am

After going to see the Henry Moore exhibition at Tate Britain a few weeks ago I’ve found myself spotting references to Moore all over the plac.

He’s mentioned in the current temporary exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery about Moore’s contemporary Paul Nash. And there’s a portrait of him in the Irving Penn exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. (Alright, alright, I’m just showing off at how many exhibitions I go to. It’s a hazard of the job really.)

I also spotted a few of his sculptures about the place in London. Are we all left wanting Moore?

I wrote a piece about noticing these, and other, references on Dulwich OnView, which went live this morning.

The Moore show at Tate is well worth the visit. I used to not like Tate Britain shows that much as they were a bit over my head, but this one seems to have been curated, designed and the text written with the visitor in mind. Great stuff. Do go and see it.

A new look for Dulwich OnView

In Dulwich OnView on March 16, 2010 at 3:25 pm

One of the websites I write for is the online magazine Dulwich OnView, which celebrates life and culture in south London. It was set up by a group of volunteer writers and photographers who all wanted to get together and create something which reflects life here in Dulwich and the surrounding areas.

The site has been going from strength to strength. As an example of a community project, we’ve now been written about in a handful of academic papers, we’ve attracted interns and we’re showcased and represented at conferences and symposia across the world. And it’s all the work of a few volunteers, using free technology (we use WordPress.)

This week we launch the newly designed site, with new features and a more straightforward navigation. There are a few small glitches to iron out – as with any new website – but I think it looks beautiful. While we’ve had to pay for a redesign – kindly sponsored by an anonymous donor – we’re still using the free software to manage the magazine.

Take a look at the newly rebranded Dulwich OnView.

Vishvapani on generosity and happiness

In happiness on March 13, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Vishvapani is a Buddhist writer, based in Manchester. I first came across his writings when he spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot, and I’ve continued to enjoy his contributions there.

His work explores how the teachings of Buddhism interact with the modern world and he can often be relied upon to present an alternative or insightful view on a current issue or trend.

In his slot on the radio this morning, Vishvapani was talking about the challenge fundraising in the modern world, especially by people who try and stop you on the street, asking you to give money. It’s very easy for us to dismiss them and to walk on by. In his speech this morning he explained how Buddhists approach giving:

“According to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, the origin of suffering is craving. Turning that around, happiness comes from contentment and generosity. That’s why giving is the most fundamental Buddhist practice. It expresses a healthy attitude to life because it connects you to others. It recognizes that we depend on other people. And if you want to create a better society, Buddhism says, you should give, because a good society is a generous one in which people care for each other.”

You can read the full transcript on the Thought for the Day website.

The above quote is copyright BBC, 2010.

From farmyard to Roman Museum

In Museum [Insider], Museums, new content on March 12, 2010 at 3:33 pm

There’s a new museum telling the story of the Romans in northern Britain in the planning in Cumbria .

It’s at Maryport, at the idyllic end of Hadrian’s Wall – the famous Roman frontier zone in the north of England. Overlooking the sea there is a spot called Camp Farm which, until recently, has been in private hands. But thanks to the clever folks at Hadrians’ Wall Heritage Limited – an independent organisation which seeks to cultivate contacts and collaboration along the wall – 150 acres of land have been purchased and are to be turned into a new museum.

The project has support to take it through to a formal HLF funding bid, which is sure to succeed. Details of the plans and the project are in a new article by yours truly on Museum [Insider].

I’ve had a bit of a break from writing articles for M[I], whilst I’ve been working on other projects, but we’re back on form now. Expect more to come out soon.

What does Susan Sarandon think about happiness?

In happiness, what i'm reading on March 10, 2010 at 4:59 pm

I’ve been following what some celebrities have been saying about happiness of late, just to get an idea of what it means to them – or at least what they say it means through their media people.

The latest to come out with her thoughts on happiness is Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon, who claims that happiness keeps her young.

The 63-year-old she also takes care of her appearance by avoiding cigarettes.
“Don’t smoke,” she said. “It’s just so bad for your complexion. And I guess be as happy as possible. That really helps.”

Sarandon also revealed that she has a good relationship with her children, adding: “It’s nice to have something in common with your kids… All my kids really are curious and energetic and interested in things.” She concluded: “I hate to sound like the old hippy I am, but I think that even the bad stuff can turn into good stuff. Every day is a miracle, right?”

So nothing really new there, but an interesting perspective. And her attitude towards happiness fits into some of my major family of ideas about what happiness means to us today: Don’t smoke (investing in health), good skin (investing in appearance), energetic (physical stimulation), interesting things (mental stimulation), every day is a miracle (positivity).

Thanks to Digital Spy for the lead.

English language exhibition at the British Library

In Museums on March 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm

At the moment I’m writing up a really interesting piece of work for the British Library.

They’re opening an exhibition in November about the English language. It looks like it’s going to be another success story for the BL, who have really raised their game in terms of temporary exhibitions in the Paccar gallery in recent years. Henry VIII was a triumph and there are just a few days left of Points of View, the current exhibition about the birth of photography.

This new exhibition is presently in concept design stage and I’ve been working for them, as a consultant, on finding out whether the public ‘get’ the prospect of the exhibition or not. So I recruited and chaired some focus groups – which we held earlier this week – and asked members of the public for their opinions on the proposals as they stand at the moment. And it turns out that they really like them.

It’s going to be a great show, with lots of thought having gone into representing the English language in all its forms – spoken, written, recorded etc. English is a truly international lanauage so it’s got appeal for people all round the globe, and indeed for international audiences right here in London. It’s also a changing language with a long and interesting history and the exhibition will explore this, as it continues to change.

Perhaps the most exciting part will be the areas looking at accents and dialects. I won’t give anything away now, but expect to have fun in this exhibition, and to learn loads of those great facts for dropping into dinner party conversation.

Did you know 95% of all communication in English does not fit into the ‘standards’ that we have set ourselves for how the language should be written or spoken? Great stuff.

Two exhibitions in one weekend

In Uncategorized on March 1, 2010 at 11:32 am

My word, that was a double exhibition-visiting weekend just gone.

On Saturday I went back to my old stomping ground of the Imperial War Museum to see the Ministry of Food exhibition. I was pretty excited about going, not least because of the excellent blog which had been putting out great messages about the show in the run up to the opening.

The show is, as always at the IWM, perfectly put together with excellent attention to detail. The design of exhibitions always seems to ‘work’ at the IWM, with beautifully constructed sets and amazing props. But I wasn’t really a fan of the interpretive hierarchy this time. Someone has clearly decided to do away with traditional long panels introducing each section of the show – which is an admirable and a brave step – but the complete absence of narrative left me a bit lost. I came out having seen many of the usual suspects I expected and having learned a few facts, but I didn’t get a sense of what the IWM wanted to tell me about food during the Second World War.

I must say I’m getting a bit tired of the visitor route in the upstairs exhibition gallery with its angular architecture and glimpses of what’s to come through the walls. It worked for a while, but I’m sure someone can come up with something new now.

Sunday was Tate Britain for the Henry Moore exhibition. It only opened last week, so it was pretty busy, but I must say I was utterly delighted with the show. I love Moore anyway, but I had gone into the space with a sense of dread. TB have in the past managed to completely ruin some artists for me with their preachy and unintelligble language and their snooty attitude to art, but this was a pure delight. Aside from the sensitive and well-paced design of the space and settings of the art works, someone has managed to get hold of the panel text and make it actually make sense this time. I came out knowing and appreciating much more about Henry Moore and even bought the catalogue – a rare measure of success for me!

Have you seen either of these exhibitions? Do let me know if you agree/disagree.