Monday, August 15, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser

Among Europe’s oldest museums, those in university towns are also among the best. University museums can be as quirky and inspiring as national museums can be pompous and dull. They can be provocative in the better sense, of teasing out a response through scholarly presentation rather than through trying to offend and overthrow. Those like Uppsala’s Gustavianum and Oxford’s Ashmolean are still true to their 17th century origins as ‘cabinets of curiosities’, sparking connections as much as reducing knowledge to order.

The Ashmolean Museum started life in London, as the personal collection of the Tradescant family, who opened it to public viewing at their home in Lambeth. Fortunately, it got away when Elias Ashmole acquired the collection and presented it to Oxford University in 1677. Since the 19th century it has been housed in an imposing classical building just off St Giles. The galleries to the rear have recently undergone a massive rebuilding that was long overdue. I remember them as a warren of tiny rooms and twisting stairs loaded with treasures like some great-aunt’s attic, difficult to access and impossible to navigate or comprehend.

Rick Mather Associates have designed a white Modernist shell around an atrium that finally allows the Museum to display its collections as it would wish, in twice the former floorspace. The theme is ‘Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time’. Galleries flow out from introductory displays that emphasise contacts through trade and migration and are stacked above one another through time, like archæological stratigraphy, culminating in a rooftop restaurant with views out over Oxford. The basement floor addresses museology itself, housing displays on the collection’s origins and on cross-cutting themes like conservation and materials. These are not new ideas – the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery in the former King’s Library offers a precedent for the basement and the National Museum of Scotland for the stratigraphy – but the overall result is a constantly engaging museum that can be read and understood at a glance.

Can it be criticised? Of course. Where did all the money come from, and why? The atrium is not just an atrium; it is the ‘Zvi and Ofra Meitar Family Atrium’, in big letters. The retreat of the public sector offers immortality to any individual or corporation with enough to allow them the pretence of being cultured. There isn’t yet a Coca-Cola Wing or a McDonalds Gallery but the writing is clearly on the wall.

The Modernist look is just too crisply impartial to be fit for purpose. In the surviving older galleries, artworks appear in the period settings in which they were meant to appear. In the new galleries, clinically white, that sense of immersion is lost. The gallery devoted to the museum’s founders would gain immensely just from plain wood panelling on the walls to restore some of it. All the old favourites are there – Powhatan’s mantle, Guy Fawkes’ lantern – but some are tucked away so obscurely as to defeat the purpose of exhibiting them at all. John Bradshaw’s hat, worn by him at the trial of Charles I and iron-reinforced as a precaution against assassins, is in a case at foot level, with no indication higher up that it would be a good idea to kneel down and look for it. Some of the decisions on lighting too are perverse, with objects flooded and their captions in the shade.

The cross-cultural emphasis starts to verge on political correctness in presenting what is in effect a merchant’s-eye view of human history, in which it is the Silk Road that matters and not the political entities along it. A history of trade is one that conceals the reality for most people throughout most of time, which is that they spent their lives largely in one place. It is a difficult balance to get right. The gallery that presents the post-Roman Mediterranean in terms of the successor civilisations around its rim – Rome, Venice, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo – is thought-provoking but it’s as well that others enable specific blocks of culture to be explored, such as ‘England 400-1600’ or ‘India from AD 600’. A lot of thought has clearly gone into how best to tell the stories the collection’s range allows to be told. Objects remain, thankfully, central. There are no stories told that cannot be illustrated, which would be a misuse of the space. Could it have been arranged better? It may be too early to say but the layout is the very best layout one would expect of 2011.

The trip to Oxford was another enterprise of the Friends of Stroud District Museum and co-incided with an exhibition of grave goods from the Macedonian royal necropolis at Aegae, modern Vergina in northern Greece. I, and others, left puzzled that more was not widely known about these discoveries, made mostly in the late 70’s and at least as important as Tutankhamun’s tomb, which was then all the rage following the 1972 London exhibition. The objects included two intricate gold wreaths to be worn as head ornaments and numerous pieces of jewellery, such as gold discs bearing the distinctive multi-rayed stars or ‘Vergina suns’ that have now become, controversially, a Macedonian national emblem. Intricately carved ivories and some very modern-looking silver vessels recalled the legendary Macedonian banquets. There were reproductions too of the wall-paintings from the tombs. Classical Greek sculpture is renowned but here was a chance to acknowledge classical Greek painting and even suggest the artists’ names. You won’t see better before the Renaissance.

The tombs excavated include those of Alexander the Great’s father and son. Here is Macedonian history that is also the history of much of the world. Alexander’s name, from the word meaning ‘to defend’, survives in various forms right across his empire, from Aléxandros in Greece to Sikander in India. The learned Wessex princess, St Margaret, born in Hungary, took it into renewed exile in Scotland, where three mediæval kings have inspired every Alastair, Alec and Sandy since. From Byzantium, the name became a favourite in Russia. It was another Alexander, the 7th Marquess of Bath, who founded the Wessex Regionalist Party. There is no better place than the Ashmolean to reflect on the ripples of history that radiate from the actions of a single will.

Dramatic Interventions

Last month I joined a trip to Warwickshire organised by the Friends of Stroud District Museum. The first stop was Compton Verney, a country house in a Capability Brown landscape and since mediæval times the ancestral pile of the Lords Willoughby de Broke. Until 1921. Years of emptiness and neglect followed before the estate was rescued by Sir Peter Moores, of the Littlewoods empire. His vision was to create an art gallery, somewhere central, in a rural setting. The result is a good use for the house, albeit with the obligatory Modernist carbuncle added on one side, though the collection inevitably feels thrown together by a quick dash round the auction rooms to pick up whatever good stuff happened to be for sale.

Many of the galleries were shut for an event, so I cannot say whether the idea works or not. One group of galleries that certainly does is devoted to folk art, mostly British, mostly 18th and 19th centuries. There are wonderfully naïve paintings of people, street scenes and prize animals, examples of quilting, and of those three-dimensional painted wooden signs that would hang outside inns and shops in a less literate age to denote the name or the trade carried on.

One of two temporary exhibitions was devoted to Stanley Spencer. The most striking contrast in Spencer’s paintings is always between the landscapes and those who sometimes inhabit them. Buildings and gardens are observed in minute detail, every shadow and reflection captured perfectly. Into these scenes, Spencer’s people and animals intrude like balloons, unbelievably comic characters that also form the inspiration for Beryl Cook’s fat ladies (as she herself acknowledged). Their transience seems magnified by the style: the only question is whether they will burst first or float away.

The second exhibition explored Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s work in the area, remodelling the landscape for a galaxy of aristocratic patrons. Or, more precisely, to quote the title, it explored his work in ‘Middle England’. Not quite Mercia but a step up from the Midlands, presumably in an attempt to appeal to the international audience.

With other galleries closed, I was lucky enough largely to have missed what was billed as a series of artistic ‘interventions’, where ‘artists’ dress up or reposition others’ works to create new ones in a bid to be ‘provocative’ and ‘surprising’. It sounds insufferably like a bunch of satirical comedians whose fount of material is drying up, leaving only giggles and sniggers to keep the audience awake until the curtain comes down. Most folk would probably call it stretching a point at best, pointless vandalism at worst, but it does seem to be a coming trend. All the more reason to shut down the arts business altogether and get these narcissistic misfits to try doing a real job.

The other stop on the tour was another intervention, architectural this time. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon is an inter-war classic, the work of Elisabeth Scott, cousin of the Scott who designed the red telephone kiosk. During the Second World War, plans were made to evacuate Parliament to Stratford in the event of invasion, the theatre housing debates and nearby Charlecote earmarked as accommodation for Mr Speaker.

The big problem with Scott’s design was that it never worked as a theatre. The acoustics were awful and attempts to cram in extra seating made it more and more uncomfortable. I sat through Coriolanus in 1981 and while I remember little of the play I do remember the experience of sitting with my knees under my chin gazing down at some tiny figures on a stage badly obscured by the proscenium arch.

At last the Scott auditorium has been scooped out and replaced by one that works. It has been done with great respect for the historic building, though patched brickwork is patched brickwork and little can conceal the fact. The new observation tower, like a long neck paying homage to the Swan of Avon, is an inspired touch. The building’s complex history is best viewed from the other side, where neo-Gothic, Art Deco, Postmodernism or the latest dash of Brick Expressionism all vie for attention. It would have been simpler to demolish and start again. Much simpler. But instead Stratford has created a textbook example of conservation in practice, showing how to ‘preserve the best and improve the rest’. Look and learn.