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Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

International Museum of the Year 2011

In Awards, Museums on December 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm

While I might like to pretend that this instalment of my annual awards serves to highlight some museums you may want to look out for when on your travels, it is actually invented purely to allow me to show off where I’ve been on holiday in the last 12 months.

There were two runners up…

KGB Museum, Vilnius (Lithuania)
Housed in the former home of the KGB in Lithuania, this building has an ominous presence in the centre of Vilnius. The displays present a balanced (well, as balanced as you can get in a country occupied so many times) view of the nation’s experience of the Second World War and the political aftermath for eastern Europe. And the text is in English, which is great! There are some great objects from the Soviet era.

But perhaps most impressive – and certainly most chilling – are the basement cells where inmates were imprisoned, tortured and executed. If you’ve been to the House of Terror in Budapest, this is the next on the list for you.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Minsk (Belarus)
Minsk itself is a new experience for many people in so many ways – a Stalinist ideal of what a city looks like. Minsk has been described by various people as ‘where communist architecture works’ and you get a sense of this walking around the city. And this museum is no exception.

Inside the interpretation is all in Russian or Belorussian, so the interpretive layering of information was almost lost on me. But with some basic knowledge we managed to find our way around pretty well. There are some rather exciting dioramas and some great set pieces. Perhaps my favourite part is the orange stained glass window in – pure socialist-realist iconography at work.
It’s a little confusing, but well worth visiting if you’re in the city.

And when you’re done, get a hot (or boozy) drink at Моя английская бабушка (My English Granny) nearby, opposite the British Embassy.

And the winner is

Neues Museum, Berlin (Germany)
Wow, just wow.

I’ve seen some museum buildings in my time, and I’ve visited plenty of cultural institutions which have had architectural interventions breathe life into them (think British Museum, Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Royal Academy) but the renovations to the Neues Museum really are enormously impressive. I’m a good 6ft2in, but I felt utterly swamped by this building – like a tiny ant crawling up the side of a rock.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise for anyone who’s thinking of visiting, but the structural interventions into this historic building have been done with care and sensitivity. And the way the building has been thought out makes the objects it contains make sense.
I was working on a project about Amarna Egypt at the time I visited in October 2011, so I was pleased to see the objects relating to that period, but surely the star of the show has to be Nefertiti herself, presiding over a whole wing of the museum on one of the upper floors.

We didn’t really have enough time when we visited, so I’d say allow a good couple of hours if you want to take in both the amazing building and the world-class collection of Egyptian, classical antiquities and prehistoric German material.

Next year’s award in this category is likely to be even more exotic as I’ve just booked an incredibly exciting and geeky holiday, which makes our trip to Lithuania and Belarus look like a weekend in the Cotswolds! Come back in December 2012 for an update.

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Provincial Town of the Year 2011

In Awards, Museums on December 26, 2011 at 12:54 pm

This year has seen me galloping around the UK rather a lot for work. It’s been great fun to see so many places and to meet people working in museums up and down the country.

That said I’ve stood on many cold platforms, endured lonely nights in strange hotels and eaten quite a few sorry meals on my own. Spending time in a British provincial town solo is a good way to try and understand a place – to figure out what makes it tick and to see if it’s the kind of place I’d want to live ever. I have to say, there are very few that are looking to beat London, even if there are a lot of museums around the place.

So I thought that as part of my annual awards I ought to create a new category for Provincial Town of the Year.
Here’s the short list of where I went (and what I was doing there):

Margate – to see the new Turner Contemporary
Hmmm, people say there’s a renaissance happening in Margate. They’ve got a great new art gallery and some lovely tea rooms, but I think I’ll wait and see on this one. (They are planning a rollercoaster museum, however, so let’s watch this one with interest!)

Oxford – to work on a multimedia guide for The Ashmolean
I always enjoy a trip to Oxford and feel I now know if well enough to hang out there at night as well as during the day. But not sure I could live there full time.

Petworth – to work on a multimedia guide of Petworth House
This is charming little village in West Sussex, dominated by the massive National Trust property and overrun with antique shops. It’s cute, but it’s far too small for me. (And I suspect property prices aren’t far off London!)

Glasgow – to see the new Riverside Museum
The museum itself (designed by Zaha Hadid) on the banks of the river is an architectural triumph and a great visitor attraction to the area. It’s rather out of town, so it won’t add that much to the regeneration of the city, but we had time to jet into the centre to see the much-heralded Kelvingrove Museum. And to sample some fab Scottish food!

Cambridge – to chair focus groups for a piece of research
If I were an American I’d say Cambridge felt cuter and OLD-er than Oxford, and certainly has more charm. But it’s perhaps lacking the pace and city attitude that Oxford has. The Fitzwilliam Museum is a pretty fab museum though – like a mini-British Museum.

Manchester – to interview the public about the First World War
This is where I grew up, so am likely to always hold a soft spot for Manchester. This is perhaps the only place on the list where I’d move tomorrow. I visited this year in the sunny September heat wave so was thoroughly entertained by the Mancunians, who weren’t entirely sure what the large yellow thing in the sky was!

Bristol – to see the new MShed
I’ve been to Bristol a few times over the last five years or so and find I like it more and more. There’s certainly a very vibrant cultural life there. But is it just too far away from London, perhaps?

Bath – to see museums and eat lovely food
I can’t believe I’d not been to Bath before. If you’ve not been, it’s a cute as you think it is. And then some. Great museums and great food. My top tip would be to take the tour of the freemasons’ hall – it’s a great space and well worth spending a few hours having a nosy around. And the Holbourne Museum is definitely worth the trip.

Edinburgh – to work on a multimedia guide for National Mining Museum Scotland
I went a few times to Edinburgh for work this year. Alas, I was on the outskirts of town which, charming as they are, aren’t quite comparable to the centre of town. I think I’m due a trip back there for the festival in 2012, Olympics permitting.

Belfast – to see the great museums there and visit the site of the new Titanic Museum
It was great to get back to Northern Ireland this year and to get under the skin of Belfast. It’s a city which has had its (un)fair share of troubles over the last 40 years, but it’s still a hugely welcoming place. Some people forget that NI is part of the same landmass as the rest of Ireland and that it’s simply beautiful. The developments on the docks are set to revitalise the city even further and I can see some more trips back there coming soon.

And the winner is …

Chichester
I visited a few times to work with the team building The Novium, a new museum due to open in Chichester in 2012.
It’s just such a cute town. There isn’t a whole load of things to do, but as a town (sorry, city) it all seems to work rather well, sitting together in a very happy medium.

Working on the museum content I got to learn plenty about the history of the place. And I also sat in on choral evensong in Chichester Cathedral, which is well worth it if you’re in town.

Where have you been to in the provinces in 2011? Any good tips?

Sandwich of the Year 2011

In Awards on December 23, 2011 at 10:03 am

2011 has been another year of travelling around the country for me, mostly with the intention of visiting museums, of course. As a freelancer on the go, I find I eat a lot of sandwiches, so for the third instalment of my annual awards, I’ve chosen my favourite three.

First runner up goes to the Marks & Spencer (the staple of any train-reliant freelancer) Roast beef and horseradish sandwich which has long been a favourite comfort food of mine, especially if you’ve had a hard day and all you want is a hug in a sandwich.

Second prize goes to the cafe of the Ulster Museum, Belfast who have a charming new cafe in their redeveloped museum. After marching around their fabulous displays you need to stop for soup and a sandwich which is served in traditionally Irish generous portions.

But first prize goes to the cafe bar of the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol. This place reminds me of the kind of place I like to find if I’m visiting Europe – it has that special the kind of laid back and arty environment that we don’t tend to do that well in the UK. Sip a glass of wine with their tasty fresh sarnies (and many other things beside) and be sure to try the polenta chips. And when you’re done, go look at the art or one of the other world-class museums within a few minutes.

Lunch. Museum. Done.

Audioguide of the Year 2011

In Awards, Museums on December 19, 2011 at 8:15 am

Audioguides are like marmite – people tend to either like them or hate them. Some people will always take the option of an audioguide if it’s available while others will do everything they can to ensure they don’t have to use one.

I suppose I’m on the fence a bit – I tend to take them if I know I’ve got enough time to listen to everything in the tour and also am in the mood to read more as well and make my own meaning. Maybe it just depends what mood I’m in. As a writer of audio and multimedia guides it’s important to me to take plenty of audio tours, to hear what’s working and what’s not and to pick up new tips. And fashions seem to change as well, so it’s worthwhile keeping up to date with the latest styles and techniques.

So I decided to award a prize this year to three audio guides I rated as successful tours.

The runners-up were the tour for the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library which really helped me to focus and look in detail at some of the finer points of objects which I wouldn’t naturally find that interesting; and the tour of the Roman Baths at Bath, which I visited for the first time this year . It was great to be given the option of hearing from people like Bill Bryson as I moved around the baths – he’s always got something interesting to say. This tour stood out for me as being strong on direction – I always knew exactly where to stand and what to do.

But the winner for me this year was the guide for the Scott and Shackleton photography exhibition, currently on at the Queen’s Gallery. The audio tour took me on a journey with these brave explorers as they faced their various challenges along the way. The way the guide was written left me wondering what was going to happen next in the adventure – I was sometimes looking desperately for the next stop on the tour so I could find out what came next, like flipping the pages of a good novel.  It was really quite personal and I was almost in tears at the end of the exhibition.

An audio guide that moves visitors to tears? Great work!

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is open at the British Library until 13 March 2012.

The Roman Baths at Bath are open every day.

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton & Antarctic Photography is open at the Queen’s Gallery until 15 April 2012.

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Audioguide of the year

Audioguides are like marmite – people tend to either like them or hate them. Some people will always take the option of an audioguide if it’s available while others will do everything they can to ensure they don’t have to use one.

I suppose I’m on the fence a bit – I tend to take them if I know I’ve got enough time to listen to everything in the tour and also am in the mood to read more as well and make my own meaning. Maybe it just depends what mood I’m in. As a writer of audio and multimedia guides it’s important to me to take plenty of audio tours, to hear what’s working and what’s not and to pick up new tips. And fashions seem to change as well, so it’s worthwhile keeping up to date with the latest styles and techniques.

So I decided to award a prize this year to three audio guides I rated as successful tours.

The runners-up were the tour for the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library which really helped me to focus and look in detail at some of the finer points of objects which I wouldn’t naturally find that interesting; and the tour of the Roman Baths at Bath, which I visited for the first time this year . It was great to be given the option of hearing from people like Bill Bryson as I moved around the baths – he’s always got something interesting to say. This tour stood out for me as being strong on direction – I always knew exactly where to stand and what to do.

But the winner for me this year was the guide for the Scott and Shackleton photography exhibition, currently on at the Queen’s Gallery. The audio tour took me on a journey with these brave explorers as they faced their various challenges along the way. The way the guide was written left me wondering what was going to happen next in the adventure – I was sometimes looking desperately for the next stop on the tour so I could find out what came next, like flipping the pages of a good novel.  It was really quite personal and I was almost in tears at the end of the exhibition.

An audio guide that moves visitors to tears? Great work!

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination [http://www.bl.uk/royal] is open at the British Library until 13 March 2012.

The Roman Baths [http://www.romanbaths.co.uk/]at Bath are open every day.

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton & Antarctic Photography [http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/microsites/HOTGA/] is open at the Queen’s Gallery until 15 April 2012.

Word of the Year 2011

In Awards on December 15, 2011 at 3:14 pm

As 2011 draws to a close I’m publishing, once again, my annual awards of the year. There’ll be a few prizes being given out over the next few weeks covering a range of topics. Regular followers of these awards will be familiar with the standard categories such as Museum Object of the Year and Sandwich of the Year. And there’ll be some new categories this year too. Turner Prize, this aint.

At a festive gathering of other freelancers this yuletide, I posed the regular question about Word of the Year.

What word or phrase sums up the last twelve months? In years to come when we look back at 2011, how will we sum it up, or describe it in one word?

Last year seemed to be a bit simpler. 2010 was defined by words like coalition, deficit, wikileaks and vuvuzela. But 2011 has been a bit more tricky.

Runners up in our incredibly scientific vote were RIOT, PHONE HACKING, ARAB SPRING and FENTON!

But the winner was UPRISING.

That’s a bit of a surprise to me – I mean it’s been a hugely important year in terms of people taking to the streets and making their voices heard (or not heard in some cases) but it seems a bit strong to say that 2011 is the most significant year in terms of uprisings.

I’d probably cite 1789, 1917, 1956 and 1989 as years of pretty impressive uprisings, if asked. I wonder if 2011 is really as impactful as those years?

Reflecting on this, I suppose that those four years stick out in our minds as individual instances of uprisings – be it in France, Russia, Hungary or East Germany. 2011 stands out from these years as a time when people felt the need to rise up and seek to overcome their oppressors – be it in Egypt, Libya, Syria or Wall Street. It’s been a year of amazing change across the Middle East and the wider world and the ways in which uprisings have been coordinated – using the Web, facebook and twitter – and the speed with which we have learned about them has been unprecedented.

So maybe UPRISING does sum up this year pretty well.

Strangely DOWNTON ABBEY didn’t get a vote. But PANDA did.