Thursday, 8 October 2015

Face of Britain: National Portrait Gallery

Not all learning in museums is about the objects they display. In the museum learning literature it is acknowledged that people sometimes learn, "something new about each other"*. Never, for me, has this been so apparent than when I went with my dad to see Simon Schama's Face of Britain at the National Portrait Gallery. I'm in my late forties, you'd think I know him quite well by now.

As with the Grayson Perry exhibition, 'Who Are You?' at the National Portrait Gallery on last year, which you can read about here, Face of Britain is displayed over all three of the gallery's floors. My dad has been here before, he knows the form, he suggests taking the lift to the top and working our way down (the stairs). "Much easier that way."
Face of Britain looks at portraits and identity with five themes:
Power, Love, Fame, Self and People.


Walking into the room, "that's Cromwell."
"How do you  know?"
"Cromwell, he is so distinctive, rugged, slightly nasty, I just know what he looks like."
I one the other hand, hadn't got a clue.
"Did you do history at school?"
"No, I hated history at school, bad teacher, it all depends on the teacher. I developed my interest in history after school." 
My dad went round the National Portrait Gallery identifying people. I wasn't expecting this, hearing all he knew about history, particularly impressed by him being able to identify Kings and Queens, and in the right order.

'Power', it kind of had to be... I didn't need my dad to tell me this was Margaret Thatcher.

"That makes her look softer than she was"
"...almost vulnerable looking."
"The only time she looked like that was when she was booted out."

This is when he dropped a bombshell. Never assume you know how your closest family vote.
"What! I can't believe it. I always thought you were a ..." I can't tell you how surprised I was.

Thatcher seemed to spark quite a bit of conversation, I couldn't help but overhear.
"Apparently she kept interfering with what the artist was doing."
 "Well that just about sums her up!"

The Queen. A 3D picture, a bit like one of those 3D postcards where things move. I had one where if you looked at it from different angles, giraffes moved their heads from side to side.
" I don't like it, her nose is pronounced too much."
I so wished it was one of those 3D moving pictures and she would open her eyes when stepped from side to side looking at her from different angles. It was not to be, this image was inspired by seeing the queen resting, a quick shut-eye between the official shots.

Here's another Elizabeth, the first.

No resting for her, she has a country to rule, painted under her feet, putting us firmly in our place.


My dad proves to be a mine of information. he doesn't need to read the label to know this is is George, Prince of Wales, Prince Regent.

George, despite his "serial amorous adventures", had one true love, Maria Anne Fitzherbert (Mrs). When he died George was found with her portrait in miniature around his neck.

It was also love that prompted Sir Kenelm Digby to call quickly for Van Dyck to paint Lady Venetia Digby after he found her dead in bed. He lived with this portrait by his side, day and night, but it didn't manage to fully console him.

The "great and the good, ...characters".

Simon Weston, he is part of both our consciousness, memories of the 1980s and the Falklands War. 

Everyday people, from Torquay. It's near where my mum lives, I scan the photos to see if I recognise anywhere. I really don't. But am impressed with this "Torquay fishwife's" 'leg o'mutton' sleeves. What a great jacket.

These photos intrigue me. Surveillance photos of militant suffragettes, taken undercover while they were in prison. Imprisoned for damaging museum artefacts in the British Museum and the National Gallery. Their photos now hang in the National Portrait Gallery. So many questions, not least, how far would I go to stand up for women's rights? I am thankful for these women. 


I pause to take a photo to send to a friend via Facebook. We're playing a game. #GuessWho? 

My dad spots Nelson a mile off. I didn't realise how much of a celebrity Lady Emma Hamilton was. The mistress of one of the most famous people in Britain in the 18th century, she was "London's biggest female celebrity". Many of her portraits were reproduced in etchings to "provide the public with affordable portraits". Etchings, social media, has much changed?


This is the "earliest known oil self-portrait painted in England". It's tiny. Painted whilst inprisoned at the Tower of London, Gerlach Flicke also painted his fellow cellmate, Henry Strangwish, who was in for piracy. 

Frank Auerbach. "very clever scribbles". Despite looking "scribbled", perhaps rushed, Auerbach worked on this painting for six years, continually rubbing bits out. Possibly a testament to that feeling of looking in the mirror and not really being happy at what you see.

Dame Laura Knight in her studio. I love this painting. She's there, hard at work in a life-drawing class, establishing herself as an artist, in a place where previously she had been barred, for being a woman.

David Bomberg, we read, went to the Slade school of art.
"Society of Lithographers, Artists, Designers and Engravers."
"No, not that Slade, the art college. But anyway, how do you know that?"
"My father was a member, a lithographer."
"I didn't know that, I only remember him retired."
"Yes he was a printer, worked in the Caledonian Road, Kings Cross. He was at the Woolwich Arsenal in 1940, getting ready to go to France in the Second World War, when he was told that he was not going because they needed him to be a forger, probably to help with the resistance. I don't know exactly what he worked on as he'd signed the official secrets act and never told his family. I've found all this out since he died."
"He could raw a perfect circle free-hand."
This was my grandfather from an ordinary semi in Wembley. I had no idea. 

Simon Schama tells us that Face of Britain is about identity, portraits, discovering who people are. As well as learning about the illustrious on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, I was thrilled to learn more about my family.

Simon Schama's Face of Britain is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 4th January 2016. Free admission. Details on their website here.  

Did you #GuessWho?

William Shakespeare

*Falk and Dierking, 1992

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".
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