Monday, 28 September 2015

London Fire Brigade Museum

Last weekend was Open House London 2015 and a friend suggested we all go, he loves my kids. Open House London seeks to help people learn about buildings and architecture, those that have, "such a strong impact on us on an everyday basis". They say that photos and illustrations are not enough, we have to visit, get inside these buildings and get to know them and that includes museums.
So we did.

At this point this trip could have gone one of two ways. Either very un-politically correct with 'who doesn't love a fireman', or down the geeky route with engines, water pressure, pumps and ladders. You will be pleased to know that it did just that, the geeky route; history, inventions and the development of firefighting. In some cases little has changed.

Despite what this 17th century Newsham pump looks like, this is high-tech, designed to pump and direct water down a leather hose to a specific point up to 40 feet away, the firefighters able to keep a safe distance.

This was manufactured for over 100 years and eventually they came in red. But you may have clocked that there's no ladder. In those days ladders and pumps were separate. Your buildings insurance paid for the fire service which was there to save buildings, not people. Noticing a bit of a problem here, charities paid for ladders to be added to fire engines in the 19th century. 

Eventually in 1969 we came to this, the Dennis F108.

Still red, a (manual) bell, flashing lights, ladders,

and 300 gallons of water on board.

With this on the back, a detachable ladder, handcrafted in wood.
Wooden cartwheels were in use until the 1980s.

 Producing firefighting equipment has required other artisan skills. Such as basket weaving used to make this filter, seen on this trailer pump used during the Second World War.

Wicker filters were made to filter the water from rivers, as often the mains were destroyed by bombing. Camouflaged in battleship grey, volunteers in the Auxiliary Fire Service could be trained to use these in just two hours.

We learnt all this from David, a retired firefighter who has a trailer pump at home. It still works and he takes it to shows and gives demonstrations. Here he is with a wheelbarrow pump. It's amazing what you learn when your engineer husband and friend keep him chatting for hours. How did they think to ask those questions? I was quite impressed with what they knew already.    

This was a museum in two halves. Engines in the appliance bay and the history of firefighting in Winchester House, the residence of the Brigade's Chief Fire Officer, Captain Eyre Massey Shaw who took charge of the Brigade in 1861 and is said to have begun the modern fire service.

Seeing this picture above I'm feeling slightly better about my un-political "nice firemen" quip. Looks like they've always had a somewhat pin-up status. Here Captain Massey features in Vanity Fair in their 'men of the day' section no less. A popular man, "he is, besides being the first fireman, one of the most popular men in London."

We look at uniforms, past and present.

A visitor, a firefighter, explains that the reflective visor is to reflect the heat. Of course! We feel a little foolish for not working that out for ourselves. 

Visitors are invited to try on uniforms. I was so pleased to see that these were not replica but the real thing. 'Real' is important in museums.

He was so desperate to fool people, standing stock still as I wandered into the room, but his height gave the game away a little. I have to say it wasn't just me he tried to fool, he stood like that for ages, hoping to trick other visitors. I moved on denying all responsibility.

We met another firefighter, another visitor, who explained this...

We never caught its name, but were seriously impressed with what it does. The red bag is attached to the fire firefighter and on entering a building with low visibility, you tie off the rope at intervals. When your air supply gets low, you have to get out. 

Finding the rope, you feel for the two knots, find the short knot, follow the rope and take the "short way" out. Clever! You abandon the bag and get out.

We saw women. Mrs J Hicks, Deputy Chief Woman Fire Officer, awarded an OBE for her services in the NFS in the Second World War. Having the word 'fire' in her job title was important, "as it gave weight to the fact that the women involved in the Brigade were not just involved in welfare and making the tea".

The Fire Service is not just reactionary but works hard to educate the public. They must do a good job as my daughter remembered this poster from a primary school visit and I'm pleased, yet slightly alarmed, to learn that from age seven she has had a 'Fire Plan' in place with her emergency escape route sorted. She's twelve.
"Don't you have have an escape route? If I coudn't get out through my bedroom door, well you know that little roof, I'd open my window and jump on that."
She is the most organised in our family. 

Meanwhile I worry about the toaster and electric shower, not to mention the vacuum cleaner (not shown). Perhaps I should (could) ditch the hoover as it's a fire risk?

But here's the rub. We visited the London Fire Brigade Museum on its last day of opening on that site in Southwark. It is moving to the Albert Embankment, opening in three years time. If our experience is anything to go by, I would pencil it in your diary and go visit when it opens. Details on their website here. However, keep an eye out for them, as they told me they will be doing pop-up exhibitions, school visits and events around London while they wait.

Meanwhile Open House London features many museums and will happen again in September 2016. Details on their website here.

We had a great time and so it seems did this kid.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Designs of the Year 2015

Designs of the Year is an annual exhibition at The Design Museum showcasing the best of design from around the world in six categories: architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product and transport. In each category a winner, the best of the best, is chosen by an independent jury.
We went as a family last year, 2014, which you can read here, where we had trouble agreeing on what we thought made for good design, our own judging criteria being far from independent. It's hard to agree on things when you know what you like and your mum thinks she know better. This year I went with friends, three women, three mums. What would we consider to be good design?

Firstly this.  

Plant pots to live in, bringing indigenous trees back into a city in Vietnam that is only 0.25 percent green. A kind of two birds and one stone design, helping with pollution and flood prevention.
Just one problem, "you couldn't seriously sit on that wall. Look at the drop".

Then there was tea, "I'd like that", just heating the water you need. Could this be the gadget that really does slot into everyday life and doesn't get resigned to the back of the cupboard after the initial enthusiasm has died down and you realise you haven't the space for it.

Then it gets clever, we all love this. Not only for the innovation, a table that can charge your phone using daylight, but who doesn't love a good pun, "Current table". It all happens by photosynthesis.

Saving on family squabbles, it is able to charge two phones at the same time.

Another design we could totally go with. "Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables".
Common sense, playful design promoting misshapen fruit and veg, making it "appealing and cool".

An attempt to reduce waste. We learn that fifty-seven percent of the 300 million tonnes of fruit and veg thrown away each year, is due to its appearance. Crazy! Get with it, shoppers, it's thirty percent cheaper too.

Then there are the designs we are thankful we don't have to rely on, but can still get very excited about. "How cool is this?" Without being connected to a water supply, sewers or mains electricity it provides hygienic sanitation.  

This toilet has everything covered. It's solar powered, waste water is cleaned, with chlorine produced through electrolysis, clean enough to wash your hands. Yes really. Waste material (you get my drift) is separated and collected to be converted into fertiliser and biogases. Practical, everyday design, yet its effects are huge. 1.8 million people die a year due to poor sanitation.

For some design, there's a story rather than an object on display. "The Ocean Cleanup", an "environmentally safe process" for removing the vast amount of plastic waste from our oceans. A project begun by a teenage engineering student, using the ocean currents to drive the rubbish towards floating barriers. 

We're convinced, however evidence is provided of the damage plastic waste does in our seas.

Not all the designs that impress us are about providing practical solutions and meeting needs, some is purely aesthetic and playful.

These designs for new Norwegian banknotes, combine two different designers' ideas, front and back. They work well together, kind of need each other. Two different designers saying, "I did that!"

"A streetlamp that plays with your shadow"

We had fun with this, as it recorded our shadow and played it back when the next person walked underneath. What I loved about this, is that it brought people out onto the quieter less explored streets of Bristol purely to search them out and play. One of our favourite designs in the exhibition.

As I said, we were three mums visiting, we have kids. How clever is this? Sensing labour is underway, it texts the farmer an hour before the calf is due. A design for animal welfare, but there are parallels.

Designs of the Year 2015 is on at the Design Museum until 31 march 2016.
This is our selection, there are many more design nominations, the best of 2015. Is this the stuff of future museums? As the Design Museums says,
"Someday the other museums will be showing this stuff".

Monday, 14 September 2015

Kids...'Walk Through British Art'

'Walk Through British Art' is a series of galleries at Tate Britain which in their words is, "...a walk through time", through their collection from 1545 to the present. "There are no designated themes or movements; instead, you can see a range of art made at any one moment in an open conversational manner."

Fuelled by lunch, having seen the Barbara Hepworth exhibition, which you can read about here, we headed into the permanent galleries. I watched and chatted to my kids, intrigued to see how the Tate's 'open conversational manner' approach to displaying art worked itself out in our conversation.
What made them tick in the Tate?


Quite often it was the materials and the questions surrounding their use that drew in the kids, especially my youngest son and his friend.

Such as bread.
"Bread people".

"Do you think he bought sliced bread?
"How did he cut the bread to make room for the body shape? Did he cut round someone or use a mould of a person?"

"Bet it smells."

"I want to climb on them." Fortunately at 12 years old, he knew better.


Sometimes it was the challenge of a piece of art that captured the kids' imagination. Especially if the work presented itself as a bit of a puzzle.

Art in corners.
"I really can't tell if those shapes are printed on the wall or hanging there."

This was one of those pieces of work in a gallery that make you go and get your mum.
"Can I show you something really cool?"

"That's mad."
"That's not a hole is it? There's no way that's a hole."
We were so close, yet couldn't tell. Clever!

"Mum look, 3D or not 3D." He was pleased with himself for the pun.


We all like the work that reminded us of something, something within our experience.

"Do you remember seeing that Gilbert & George exhibition in Exeter?"

"That looks like Britain overcoming the Nazis in the Second World War. They start to break up, then at the end they are shattered apart."
We look at the label and find out that this was in fact made in the seventies. It is though, a comment on racism.
"Racism is breaking down. Good."

"I've seen this before. I like the colours, the splash." Says a teenager unafraid of colour.
"What even those greys?"
"Grey's not a horrible colour. You wear a lot of grey." True.

"I recognised that from the airport. I saw a security camera and the inside of a suitcase looked liked that."

Kids seem to want a work of art to be about something.
"What's this meant to be?"
"It's meant to be art."
"But what's it all about?"

So when no "about" is mentioned, they start to decide for themselves, more often than not applying concrete rather than abstract concepts.

"It looks like a ship."

"They look like singing worms."
"Friendly creatures."
"What is it about them that makes them look friendly?"

Hard Work

Hard work is acknowledged and respected.

"Those words must have taken a long time to do, especially if they did it manually", says a child from a digital age.

What they didn't get.

"How is that a work of art, it just looks like a messy room."
"That is not someone with a good life because they have mess all over their bed, things you don't really need. If they had a good life, they'd have a bedside light and loads of books."

The comments of two boys, not yet teenagers, on a comment made by the artist on her own life.
Do you think Tracy Emin has bedside light nowadays?"
Having a bedside light obviously says a lot about a person.

At this point, two delighted boys find and show us the smallest spider web, connecting her bedside table to her mattress. The Tate has a squatter, do they know? Does Tracy Emin know?

"What's the point? It's not saying anything important."
"It's a wire sculpture. Like a wire drawing. Sometimes when you draw, you make more than one line don't you. I think it's beautiful, a gentle, soft, wire drawing."

This was our conversation, Whether or not our responses were what the artists or Tate imagined, it's what we talked about. We would have liked a bit more "about" conversation with the Tate. When you're nine and twelve years old, it's important that galleries answer some of your questions. I reckon the Tate could have joined in a little more with the conversation, information was sparse.

As you can see, kids do get on with it, get engaged, make comments and stop themselves climbing on some very tempting pieces of sculpture, but at times things can come to a dead end.
"I don't know what it's supposed to be."

Tate Britain, Walk Through British Art galleries is free, open every day. What's stopping you visiting?
Unless you're scared of spiders.
Details on their website here.

Just in case you were wondering. It was a hole. I can't tell you how we found out, but I promise we did not touch the artwork.

UPDATE: To answer my son's questions about how Anthony Gormley cut the bread for the body shape in the sculpture above, We have since found out (from the telly) that he ate all the bread required to to make a 3D outline of himself. 
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