Category Archives: Museum Visits

Beautiful Things Without Much Context – The V&A (London Trip #1)

SO. I’ve not updated this blog for about half a term now and that’s absolutely disgraceful. I’m going to try and do some brief catch-ups on the visits I’ve not blogged, just for completeness, but I’m afraid that since it was really quite a long time ago I don’t remember as much as I’d like and the context is NOT complete!

Before Christmas my MA group went to London to have a fly-by at some of the museums down there. It really was a flying visit and I need need need to get back down there and see some of these things in more detail. I got a few good pictures out of it, though!

Anyway, so this is the V&A, or the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. It was originally designed as a sort of craftsman’s reference, to improve the manufacturing industries of Britain in that wonderfully patronising paternalistic Victorian method of philanthropy. 😛 With that in mind, it’s interesting how you can enter the V&A from a subway linked to the Tube line, as I did. It’s a weird experience coming in that way, and I wish I’d kept the series of photos that detailed how the subway begins in a rough, industrial sort of way and becomes finer and finer until you reach this opening, heralded by a revolving designer sign overhead reading “V&A”.

The entrance to the V&A from the subway
The entrance to the V&A from the subway

The colourful and intricate tiles are really quite striking when compared to the concrete floor and dirty beige brick walls of the tunnel you’re leaving (you can just see a sliver of this to the left of the picture above).

subway tiles
Close-up of the wall tiles.

I came into the main museums and tried to call the classmates I was supposed to be meeting, but kept getting distracted by things.

some deer
Some random deer

There were so many beautiful things, but I’m afraid I was appreciating them like some sort of aesthetic magpie, without noting context or artist names. Yes, I know, I’m a horrible student. So hang me for it!  😛

I found out where the others were but got side-tracked by the Islamic art gallery (tucked away at the back! Things this beautiful should get a more prominent place – but that’s another tangent).

bird cloth

bird dish

There was the most beautiful pulpit (I believe the Arabic term is minbar?) displayed whole in the gallery.

The Egyptian minbar
The Egyptian minbar

It looked very familiar, and when I read the label I realised it was of Cairene origin, and reminded me a lot of the mosques I had seen recently when I visited Cairo in spring. If anyone’s interested in Islamic art and architecture I thoroughly recommend a visit, especially to the Mosque of Muhammed Ali (sometimes known as Ali Pasha) inside the Citadel. It’s a fascinating blend of traditional mosque decoration and a sort of weird faux-French style with wreaths and swags everywhere! It’s worth a visit even just for the beautiful cupola:

Anyway, enough of that tangent. Here are some details of the woodwork on the minbar from the V&A:

minbardetails2

minbardetails1

And for good measure, some tiles I found nearby that show the same kinds of patterns worked in pottery:

tiles

Oh man, just look at that woodwork! Those curves and lines! The dark wood against the gilding! Really my photos are just awful, but take a moment to appreciate it anyway. 😛

Seriously, these tiles are just amazing. And a few more dishes etc.

moretiles

tilesagain

rabbitvase

I think the tile makers of the Islamic world would get on well with the craftsmen of Leeds and the area – have you seen how many tiles there are around town even today? With the famous Burmantofts pottery nearby, amongst others, it’s perhaps not surprising how rich our tiled heritage is! Little overview with some nice pics here. They’re everywhere – civic buildings, churches, hotels, the arcades, the theatre, even pubs and random buildings here and there. One day I’ll do a walk through town and snap pictures of a few. It’s beauty all around us, seriously.

Anyway back to the V&A. I didn’t get many pics of the other objects I saw because I was by then very late and rushing, but I did notice a couple of gorgeous chapel doors in the Medieval gallery, which actually reminded me quite a lot in their tones and complexities of the minbar. There’s probably a scholarly comparison in there somewhere – similarities and differences in wooden sacred furniture across the Religions of the Book, perhaps? – but I just thought they were beautiful.

wider view

doors

A brief rush through the costume gallery, with a drive-by snapping of these pics of very Jane Austen outfits!

mr darcy maybe

elizabeth or jane

And then it was on to the exhibition we were actually here to see: Disobedient Objects. Aaaannnd… that’s where I’m going to leave you, for tonight! Disobedient Objects will get its own post shortly, as soon as I sort out my goddamned life. 😛

Good night!

“Now a Man” – Autoethnography and the National Coal Mining Museum

So, today I went with a friend to the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield to take their Underground Tour. The main purpose of the visit was as an exercise in ‘autoethnography’ –  “a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher’s personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings”.

Basically, the idea was to take the tour and pay close attention to my own feelings and how I experienced it, and then draw things out from that.

————-

We arrived late to the museum, having got horrendously turned around in Wakefield due to some less-than-helpful signs!

First impressions:

The museum opens very much like any other modern museum. Foyer, giftshop, large wall displays in dramatic colours.

Enter through the gift shop, please...
Enter through the gift shop, please…
NCM Gallery
The entrance to the main gallery

The main gallery is devoted to Mining Life, with reconstructions of miner’s cottages and cases with objects telling the stories of their lives.

This is a case showing the health consequences of mine work. The x-rays show the man’s lungs becoming irreversibly choked with soot and grime.

Miner's Lung
Miner’s Lung
Too late
Too late

There’s a stuffed rat in the bottom of the case – something for the children to squeal at.

Just your friendly neighbourhood rat
Just your friendly neighbourhood rat

We cross over the sunny yard to the head of the shaft, where the tours begin, and this is where things start to change. There’s a sense of excitement in the air, a slight whiff of danger that’s making everyone move faster as they approach – or perhaps nobody wants to be late for the last tour!

The warnings begin
The warnings begin

We gather in a cold shed-like building and scrabble for fitting hard-hats. This is where we realise – to the dismay of some – that there will be no photography in the mine.

There will be no phones.

There will be no iPods.

There will be no electronics of any kind.

Please hand in your electric car keys.

Please hand in your watches.

Hand in your cigarettes, your lighters, your e-cigs and your matches.

This mine is bound by contraband laws, as any working mine would be. This place is dangerous. You are not safe.

Goodbye to technology
Goodbye to technology

We file in past a window to hand in our contraband and receive our lights and battery packs for going underground.

Waiting...
Waiting…

I hand in my camera, and it’s gone. I can’t show you anything. You are now in the dark, like we are. Like they were.

First we stand on reinforced glass over a pit – the furnace shaft. It’s nothing more than a giant air vent; a fire at the bottom sucks air from the mine and pushes it up the shaft, taking away deadly gases and allowing them to be replaced by fresh air from the surface.

It’s a hundred and forty metres down.

The bricks run with black water seeping out of the walls, and the shaft is girdled at intervals by iron bands. It looks like a trachea. Like a throat.

We move on, to the pit head. Our guide, a bluff Yorkshire miner who insists on being referred to as BJ, points out initials carved into the lintel of the winding house. I make a note to take a picture later:

Emma Lister Kaye
Emma Lister Kaye

“Those’re the initials of the mine master at the time this block was built. She – yes she! – had this made,” he says.

“Emma Lister Kaye, she were called. Daughter of the owner.”

A brief pause.

“Can’t tell you how good a master she were though!” he adds with a smirk.

We move on, to where we begin our descent. Twenty of us crammed into a cage the size of an ordinary lift, and still not packed tight enough for our guide – he shoves us jovially and we are crushed against the wire. As we descend almost every person has their light on. We stare at the brickwork, at the dripping water, and the dirty wire. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done before.

At the bottom it is cold – very cold. The air is blowing relentlessly from a tunnel directly in front of us – the emergency exit, BJ tells us. Exit, ventilation shaft, lifesaver. If the lift breaks, he says, if something happens to the shaft, we can walk out. Six hundred metres, up a steep slope, bare slimy rock running with water. But still, he says…. we can get out. 

We’re underground for a long time – over an hour, although down in the pit time is malleable. We are there both moments and forever.

Everything is black or grey. Everything is hard – rock, wood, metal. The floor sometimes crunches and sometimes slips underfoot.

Our guide has worked the mines his whole life. He talks about this place like it’s his home, throwing out slang terms as if speaking a different language, rarely stopping to explain the strange words. It doesn’t matter. Down here, in the place, somehow you understand.

At times he invites us to crawl through the low, low tunnels that the miners used to follow. The young people rush at it – many of the older ones hang back and take the safer road. One older man follows us every step and every inch – he’s an old miner himself. He offers snippets of what was different in his mine and his time. We wonder – why has he come back? Does he miss the damp, the silence, and the dark?

In one place there’s a tableau of an early mining family. The father is on his stomach in an eighteen-inch coal face, passing lumps to his wife. Between them is one solitary candle. Further out, a six year old girl holds the string to the wooden door, or trap. Close by stands a pony to pull carts – he would have seen daylight and green fields for only two weeks every year, spending the rest down the mine.

“Turn out your lights,” our guide says. One by one, some reluctantly, we comply. One by one, the circles of illumination die.

We are in darkness.

The silence is total.

“This little girl sat here for twelve hours at a time, not daring to move because of the blackness.”

When the lights go back on it’s too bright, somehow. We got used to the dark.

As we go along BJ jokes familiarly, telling anecdotes about his life, his family, his late wife. He’s very likeable, very down-to-earth – very male.

I realise we’ve entered a very masculine space. The dirt, the sweat and the blood seems to seep into us from the walls, from our guide’s rough Yorkshire tones, from the wires and metal and teeth of the machines that we pass. I’m excited to be part of this, to see it all, but I feel myself being pulled in by the masculinity of the space. I speak louder. My excitement becomes bravado. BJ plays tricks on the some of the other ladies present – rubber rats and talk of spiders – and I and another woman present laugh louder than all the others.

“We’re different,” we seem to be saying.

“Accept us. We’re one of you. We don’t scream, we don’t run. We’re not afraid. We’re not one of them.”

I think back to Emma Lister Kaye. I wonder if she felt masculinised by the mines. If she felt the need to be louder, to be more fearless, to cloak herself in testosterone to play with the boys.

Up in the main museum there is a wall of quotes about mining.

NCM man
A man is not really a man until…

“I was now a man”, it reads, “For a man is not really a man in Durham until he goes down the pit.”

I went down the pit. I was now a man. Or a counterfeit of one.

On the way up we ride the same wire lift we used to descend. We don’t talk much, this time. Nobody uses their lights. We have become accustomed to the dark and the silence, no longer something to be desperately dispelled.

Back in the yard, some other examples of the machines we saw underground lie on display. Somehow out here they lose their power – their teeth are less sharp, their lines less hulking, their scale stolen by the space and the sky. Tamed.

A wheel from the pithead
A wheel from the pithead
A coal cutting machine
A coal cutting machine
The pithead
The pithead

It’s hard to shake off the darkness of the mine. We are still carrying its traces, dust in our lungs and smuts on our skin. We laugh it off but it has marked us.

Over on the grass stands another pony in the low evening light. It turns out that this pony is at another kind of work, but for that brief moment it doesn’t matter. He stands on soft green grass, with feathery trees beyond, under a wide and limitless blue sky. The contrast is beyond words.

“It really makes you appreciate the sunlight, doesn’t it?” my friend remarks.

Oh yes.

I turn my face to the warmth and feel the buttery light through closed eyes.

I hope never to forget the sun.

Under the sky
Under the sky

Nature, Camera, Action! – more thoughts on the National Media Museum’s temporary exhibit

Ever wondered how we’ve come to know so much about animal and plant behaviour? Ever watched David Attenborough wander round the rain forest interspersed with macro (close-up) shots of a fly’s wing and thought “How do they do that? How do they know?

Well, Nature, Camera, Action is the exhibition for you. It’s only on til the 12th, so if you haven’t managed to get over to the National Media Museum in Bradford yet you’d better get your skates on!

The Structure of the Exhibition

A short video that introduces the spirit of the exhibition.
A short video that introduces the spirit of the exhibition.

‘Nature, Camera, Action!’ is spread over two galleries on different floors of the museum, each addressing a slightly different angle of the main message – more on that later!

The physical structure is similar to the rest of the museum’s spaces, using partitions and angles to portion out space in the open-plan galleries, making your journey through feel like an exploration, with new discoveries around every corner.

Gallery structure
A view of the first section of the first floor gallery – this section is devoted to the challenges of aerial and ornithological photography.

As Lewis mentioned in his post, the exhibition is very case-light, relying more on media, labels and interactive experiences. This image shows a section of the first gallery, which is devoted to the challenges of aerial and ornithological photography. It’s a good example of the style the museum is using – you can see a few cases, bright images on the walls, explanatory text (often written directly onto the fabric of the building) and numerous video installations demonstrating the camera techniques used.

The first gallery – located on the first floor of the museum – deals with the challenges of professional wildlife photography, both still images and video. Before you even enter the gallery proper you are confronted by a partition wall blocking your view of the exhibit, onto which a short video (pictured above) is projected, allowing the museum to make an introduction and set the tone. The video can pretty much be summed up as “Animals are amazing – look at all the things we can do to get images of them!” – this ties in with the key message I think I’ve identified, which again I’ll talk about in just a minute.

The transitions between the various sections of the first gallery.
The transitions between the various sections of the first gallery.

As you can see, the partitions are brightly colour-coded to give a sense of different areas and of moving between discrete but connected concepts.

The different sections in this gallery are devoted to:

1) Aerial and ornithological photography (as pictured above), including drone cameras and high-speed photography that can be slowed down to show events that are usually too quick to perceive;

2) The challenges of filming on plains and in safari conditions, including transporting kit, the dangers of predators, and camouflaged cameras used to get close to shy creatures;

Tortoise-cam! Everyone loves tortoise-cam.
A camera disguised as a tortoise, used to get close to feeding animals without disturbing them or changing their behaviour.

3) Underground and nocturnal photography, including probe cameras and night vision;

4) Polar and other low-temperature conditions – there’s also a section on underwater challenges here, but the colour-coding was so similar I wasn’t entirely sure if it was meant to be a separate section;

5) Macro and close-up photography, mostly of insects and other minibeasts.

The rest of the exhibition continues in the next gallery upstairs. The museum connects the two by use of vinyl decals up the stairs:

Follow the butterfly!
Decals used to guide visitors around the different levels.

The upper gallery is an extension of the exhibition, showing how wildlife photography can be undertaken at home with minimal equipment, and encouraging visitors to make their own images. During the early part of the exhibition’s life (school holiday time) workshops were run allowing children to make their own photographic equipment and use it, playing with light, shadow and other settings. This sadly isn’t running anymore, but there are lots of give-it-a-go displays still up, including one that lets visitors focus a  digital camera to take their own macro images of provided insect specimens.

These are very sturdy cameras!
A hands-on display allowing visitors to try out digital cameras

Key Messages

As I saw it, the message of the whole exhibit was one of wonder in nature and technology and how they intersect. I’d sum it up as “Animals and plants are amazing, and using some very special equipment we can get mind-blowing images and sound that we can use to learn things that would otherwise be a mystery we didn’t even know we needed to solve…” (Gallery 1)

“…But you don’t need all this equipment to do your own investigation and wildlife photography. All you need is good observational skills and an enquiring mind. Give it a go, and see what you learn!” (Gallery 2)

It’s very much a ‘family’ exhibition, as others have noted before, but in the very best sense – there’s plenty to engage the small children, but it’s not at all superficial or dumbed down, and adults can easily learn things that your average interested layman would find eye-opening.

One good feature is the wall text – if you were to go round reading every label it could come across a little text-heavy for some people, especially children, but the main points or questions are picked out and emblazoned across the walls in large, easy to read letters and in terms that late KS1/KS2 children could easily read themselves.

Liontext
Interesting points are picked out of the small text and emblazoned across the walls in simplified language.

Interactivity – and my favourite exhibits!

Those of you who’ve had much contact with me will feel no surprise when I say that the interactive aspects were those I found most interesting! I felt this exhibition did really well educationally, creating something for all ages.

It was nice to see that the National Media Museum is really living up to its name – it’s not just a museum of media, it’s a museum that uses media deftly and engagingly in its displays. Video and sound effects are blended seamlessly into the more concrete exhibits, and it never feels forced or like they are using technology for the sake of it. This was one of the best multi-media displays:

Underground bunny Underground

While narration played in the background, videos showing activity inside burrows were played in windows set into a display made to look like a warren.

Several of the sections in the downstairs gallery had incredibly immersive activities that really put the visitor in the position of the camera operator and brought home the challenges and the wonder of capturing these images. It’s really hard for me to choose a favourite, but I’m going to pick the tunnel you can just see in the picture above.

I was small enough to enter this particular exhibit and experience it for myself – unfortunately, larger adults may be denied the fascinating journey!

Here’s a video of the set-up of the tunnel.

The tunnel was full of twinkling lights from odd directions, and burrowing-type sound effects played through tiny speakers so you wouldn’t be able to hear them from outside. The constricted space, darkness and use of media was particularly evocative of the challenges and experience of the camera operator, and I think really got across the exhibition’s message of the amazing things people do to learn about nature, and encouraging people to try things for themselves and get involved.

Oh, and to add into the theme of keeping your eyes open – look who pops up at the end of the tunnel to reward an observant eye!

Surprise toad
Surprise Toad!

The other displays were also very interest, but obviously I couldn’t pick them all!

In the aerial section there was another great intersection of physical exhibit and media use – the ‘vulturecam’ (a drone camera constructed as a bird) hung from the ceiling, and beneath it was projected a loop of footage taken from a birds-lense view. While I was looking at this exhibit a family entered, and their two-year old swooped onto the projection with whoops of delight, spreading his arms and legs and practically bathing in the image! If any museum exhibit provokes that kind of reaction in a visitor I think we must count it a success.

The Vulture-cam suspended from the ceiling.
The Vulture-cam suspended from the ceiling.

A short video of the Vulture-cam exhibit (sans two-year-old!).

Multi-layered Exhibition – Always More to See!

The Vulture-cam exhibit also brings me to another theme of the exhibition that I really enjoyed. As a family exhibit it was already designed to work on many levels of comprehension, but it also went that little extra step forward to actually practice what it preached. Wildlife photographers, as I mentioned above, have to keep their eyes open and their minds curious, and this exhibition promoted those qualities in the visitors. Some aspects of the exhibition were not spoon-fed; there was no giant sign pointing to the Vulture-cam high up in the ceiling and shouting “look, this is something you need to see”. At several points the museum relies on provoking the visitors’ curiosity instead of using a prescriptive didactory style – you see a flash of colour or movement, and you flit across the room to see what is happening; your ears twitch and you hare off following an interesting sound. It’s a really clever approach that I think rewards a repeat visit – you could go round this exhibition several times and always notice something slightly different or learn something new.

The very best example of this is in the second gallery. It was part of the camera workshop that I mentioned at the beginning, but now functions as a sort of ‘Easter Egg’ extra for eagle-eyed visitors.

First you see an unassuming wall sign, quite hidden now in a corner of the educational area:

A clue hidden away on the wall.
A clue hidden away on the wall.

If you keep this in mind, follow your footsteps around the gallery, and above all keep your eyes open, you’re rewarded with the unexpected sight of these little guys hidden in rafters and above exhibits:

Magpie Owl Woodpecker

There’s also (as the green label above states) an interactive exhibit that changes with audience participation, something I find particularly exciting considering we’re starting to design our own exhibits!

A large digital screen is used to display a slideshow of images and videos sent in by the general public. This is located next to an exhibit of wildlife photography through the 20th century, making the visitors and ex-visitors feel like they can really be part of not just the exhibition but also a larger wildlife community.

Context Images

My Favourite Label

Let’s start by putting it in context with the introductory label to the second gallery:

The introductory label to the second gallery.
The introductory label to the second gallery.

This I think really articulates the message I pinpointed above, and leads me onto my specific label choice. You might recognise this one – it’s the instructions for the macro give-it-a-go exhibit I featured way back in the first section!

Close-up of the label to the hands-on camera exhibit
Close-up of the label to the hands-on camera exhibit

I’ve picked this one because it takes the technology aspect of the previous gallery and uses step-by-step instructions to prove how accessible wildlife photography and observation can actually be. Judging by the enthusiasm with which a nine-year-old and his mother descended on the display, and the huge array of photos and videos on that participatory screen, I’d say it’s definitely working!

Visitor Reactions and Comments

Being there on my own, and a friendly sort of person, I struck up lots of conversations with other visitors and got some of their reactions. Here are some comments that stuck with me:

“I like how there’s something for most ages, and it’s really hands-on to encourage kids to be interested in stuff and learn about nature. I think it would be better for kids that are a bit older though because she can’t read. Maybe they could make some cartoons or do a tour to help young kids understand it or something?”

Young local woman with four-year-old girl.

“We came with the grandchildren during the holidays and they loved it, but there was so much that we didn’t get to see, so we thought we’d come back when it was quiet. I didn’t know most of this either, so it’s really interesting.”

Female half of older couple from Wakefield.

“I took some of the photos on the screen. I really like that sort of thing – I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Blue Peter, but when you’re a child you’re encouraged to send in your artwork and letters, like your contribution matters. When you grow up, most of the time it feels like if you’re not a professional then museums and galleries don’t care. I think this one’s usually different, and that’s why I like coming here.”

Male half of couple.

“I’ve got a bug box at home and sometimes I get really interesting creatures coming to it. I’ve got photos of lots of kinds of bees. There are loads more sorts of bees than people think. I might do this when I grow up and work with David Attenborough. He’s really cool.”

Nine-year-old boy with family.

“This sort of exhibition usually runs during the school holidays. The museum likes to alternate between ‘family’ ones and more serious ones so that they can cater to everyone. I think it’s a real shame that some of the bigger more famous exhibitions go to the Science Museum in London first, even when they use our archive material heavily. It’s really important for towns like Bradford to have major cultural events going on here, offering opportunities to everyone, not just the London elite.”

Gallery assistant, male, mid-fifties.

“BIRDY!”

Two-year-old with three generations of his family, having just fallen in love with the Vulture-cam exhibit.