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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

More than a pretty woman: Emma Hamilton at the NMM

We have been wanting to make it down to Greenwich to see the National Maritime Museum's Emma Hamilton exhibition for aaaages. I mean, the Guardian gave it a five star review, and we hear some of its text panels are being used as best practice examples at MA workshops. This is besides the fact that its an exhibition about a woman, a rare beast for a museum, and certainly for a maritime museum at that. That the NMM took up the cause of a woman who is famous for being Nelson's mistress is interesting, and one imagines a concerted move on their part to be a bit more innovative with their maritime history remit. Well, it worked. Emma is engaging and intimate, drawing you through the museum's beautiful new exhibition space with ease. Her journey through the political turbulence of the late eighteenth century is fascinating, you certainly leave having a better appreciation for the life of an extraordinary woman.

The exhibition opens with a quote from Lady Hamilton herself, 'I wish to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool'. That Emma was beautiful is abundantly clear throughout the exhibition. Indeed, her beauty was the source of her fame and meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the society. It was her nymph-like face which led her to become the muse of George Romney and ultimately a household name in Georgian Britain. Her beauty also got her into much of the trouble in her life. An affair with a gentleman which began in a brothel ended in her being pregnant. She struck a bargain with another aristocrat, Charles Greville, to look after herself and her child. When Greville tired of her, he literally passed her over to his uncle (if you were here I'd murder you and myself both- she wrote to Greville in a rage). Emma spent much of her life being treated as a commodity. But there is absolutely no doubt that she was a woman making the best of her circumstances. 

The exhibition has to toe a rather fine line as it tried to exonerate the historic impression that Emma was nothing more than a harlot who seduced Admiral Nelson into an adulterous relationship. While it is abundantly clear that Emma was charismatic and artistically challenging, late eighteenth century women simply didn't have the independence to be the kind of kick ass feminist hero museum-goers might like to hear about. Emma didn't really have a choice but to be 'looked after' by wealthy men, to give up her illegitimate children, to turn to prostitution when times were hard. The extent to which Emma had genuine feelings for some of the men in her life is a bit confusing- did she truly fall head over heels each time? Or was she more interested in looking after her position? The exhibition seems to suggest she was a passionate woman who truly did love her conquests. Her love letters with Nelson are particularly touching and sincere. 

Personally I was the most interested in the part of the exhibition related to Emma's time in the Neapolitan court during the Napoleonic wars. Having married the British Envoy to Naples, Emma became a close confident of the Royal Family, and in particular Queen Maria Carolina, who was also sister to Marie Antoinette. Emma's role as an intermediary between the Neapolitan Queen and the British Navy was crucial to the success of Nelson's battle of the Nile. Emma's political acumen is more difficult to communicate in an exhibition and its perhaps less enticing than her home making with Nelson, or her portraits by Romney. But to me, this is really the heart of the exhibition. Emma was beautiful yes, but she was also courageous and wanted to prove her worth to the highest levels of society. As Amanda Vickery comments in the exhibition, Emma was a woman who refused to be defined by class. 

The exhibition design I also have to say was flawless. Throughout it is full of thoughtful touches which recall the importance of the theatre to Emma's career. Indeed, it feels like walking through a luxurious theatre-set of Emma's life, and in one instance literally becomes that. I absolutely loved the rooms made to evoke her 'Paradise Merton', her home with Nelson, complete with flickering candle effects. Emma becomes much more than just an artistic muse, but a really living breathing person who was looking for love and some sense of stability. The display of Romney paintings is equally awe inspiring. 

The NMM's exhibition is nuanced and empathetic, and will leave you even more intrigued by the life and times of Emma Hamilton. While this isn't really the focus of the exhibition, I think Emma provides a fascinating sense of late eighteenth century society, weaving quack medicine, salon society, music halls, and political turbulence. She might not be quite a feminist icon by 21st century standards, but the exhibition certainly does her justice as an ambitious and determined woman in a complex world. This is Emma on Emma's terms. 

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity is on at the National Maritime Museum until the 17th of April. 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

V&A Launch: Lockwood Kipling

It may have taken a fair few years but finally the Ministry of Curiosity has made it to a V&A launch party! The launch of Lockwood Kipling opening was not as debauched as the rumours from the Alexander McQueen show but nonetheless it was a full on cocktail-swigging-canapé-eating opening in the grand entrance of the beautifully lit V&A!

Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab is the first exhibition of many events, displays and celebrations of the relationship and bilateral exchange between UK and India marking 70 years since partition and lead by the British Council.  With a vast South Asian collection, the 2015 India festival and Fabric of India exhibition the V&A is a key player in this year of festivities. The Kipling exhibition is yet another way to showcase the exchanges between the countries and solidify the museum’s leading collection.

But who was Lockwood Kipling? He was a key cultural asset in British India through his work as an art teacher, illustrator and museum curator. As Principal of the Mayo School of Arts, Lahore he was influential in the commercial influence of crafts, promoting indigenous artist through apprentices and campaigning through the publication ‘The Journal of Indian Art.’
The exhibition explores how the Great Exhibition of 1851 influenced Lockwood Kipling himself and the V&A founded their collection as the South Kensington Museum on the fair. With a number of objects from the 1851 exhibition displayed alongside a beautiful print from the Queen’s collection showcasing the India gallery. 
The Great Exhibition: India no. 4, by Joseph Nash, about 1851. Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016

The influence of the Great Exhibition reached far and wide and later similar fairs were shown across the world and between 1865 and 1900 Lockwood organised and curatored the Indian displays at 28 international fairs from Glasgow to Melbourne his passion for Indian arts and craft went beyond the relationship he represented in Britain and India.
But of course, Lockwood Kipling was more than his influential career. He was father to Rudyard Kipling (Yep Jungle Book!) and his personal relationships are exposed through his illustrations for his sons book and my favourite object in the exhibition is the Confessions book, belonging to his wife Alice’s sister in which asked for his ideas of happiness he wrote ‘ a ripe mango in the bath with a cigar’

The V&A at night 

Lockwood Kipling is a great start to the UK-India year of culture and I certainly enjoyed the whisky sours and tandoori monkfish  at the opening  but I’m hoping that the year of culture brings out some more controversial and less imperialistic interpretations of the relationships between the countries.  

The exhibition is open until April 2nd 2017. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Taking risks at the Wellcome's Making Nature

What is Wellcome’s Making Nature about? Usually with museum exhibitions the answer is either a famous artist or individual (Bowie, Lockwood Kipling, Rauschenberg) or a theme which can typically be summed up in one word (underwear, Modernism, maps, mental health). Making Nature is about, well, exactly that. The idea that nature is a construct manufactured by human action and, more specifically, museums. Pretty conceptual for an exhibition right? This perhaps why the Wellcome hasn’t received universally glowing reviews for this one (see for example this Guardian think piece). When you build a show on a concept, people can disagree. It’s probably why most museum’s don’t do it. But it’s also why ALL MUSEUMS SHOULD. Making Nature is the thought-provoking, risk-taking exhibition you’ve been waiting for from the Wellcome. And we love it.

Richard Ross, Muséum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 © the artist

If Making Nature had only been one room, it still would have been the best thing I’ve seen a museum do in ages. The first gallery had everything you could want from a gallery of art and science. Entitled ‘ Ordering’, the opening to the exhibition does a fantastic job of demonstrating how a museum can communicate a complex idea. The concept is just that, how humans have ordered the world. From the Bible to Linneaus to Bonnet’s ladder of natural being, humans have been trying to rationalize and categorize the world around them from day one. Archival documents are used to great effect – providing a sense of history and context, but without being too ‘this is a history lesson’. A poster of Juliana Pastrana, the Bearded Lady, asks us to consider what happens when something defies categorization. If you weren’t scared by the hidden taxidermy fox, you are lying. I genuinely jumped.

Roger Fenton, Skeleton of Man and of the Male Gorilla (Troglodytes Gorilla) II, c.1855 © Victoria and Albert Museum,

Making Nature is full of unusual display techniques, but they are all for a purpose. The idea that a curator has suggested this off the wall exhibition, conceptual design and someone said – yes we will support you in that, heartens me. We are not an industry that has to put out cookie cutter exhibitions. The Wellcome knew full well that putting taxidermy animals in unusual places (ie dead on the floor) would upset some people. But that’s kind of the point. The animals serve a dual purpose: to push you to think about conservation (there’s a reason why they’ve picked the examples they have cough badger) and to mix up the way we are used to viewing animals. Animals go in nice dioramas where they look like they are alive, right? Yeah but we made that. And that’s the point.

Richard Ross, British Museum, Natural History, London, England 1985 © the artist
I don’t want to go into every single detail and spoil the visit for you. Let’s just say, you’ll never look at Richard Owen’s ‘cathedral to science’ (aka the Natural History Museum) the same way again. Or the ZSL Zoo for that matter. But I did just want to say a few words about the last room about Postnatural History. It’s clear from the get-go that this room has been curated by someone different. The reliance on speakers to tell the narrative is a little jarring, and not all of the displays seem to fit in exactly with the theme as it explained in the room label. And while this was a bit off-putting for me at first, I’ll forgive it because its just so damn interesting. The Centre for Postnatural History is interested in how we are making new animals and purposefully modifying the natural world. From multi-coloured budgies to radioactive rodents to bacteria which has learned to say hello, are we looking at a nature which is no longer natural? The stories in this room are bizarre and somewhat frightening.

Transgenic mosquito (Aedes agypti), 2009, Pinned specimen © Center for PostNatural History

Making Nature is without a doubt challenging. It’s challenging to audiences who think they know about nature and how it works. Challenging to traditional exhibition design. And to be honest, morally challenging. Importantly, its self-reflective on the part of the museum community. How as we as institutions profoundly changed the way people understand nature, and in consequence, the way people use natural resources. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Nature is about love not manipulation (oh please). As the parrots say, all nature ever did was love us, and how have we repaid them? Making Nature is what I hope museums are moving towards. Exhibitions that are complex, challenging, and invite comment. Something that moves beyond that one word catchy theme or celebrity subject. I can’t wait for Part 2!

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Ditch Rauschenberg for Lam at Tate Modern

'Oh you have to go too the Rauschenberg show at Tate Modern, what a visionary' - said probably all people ever judging by the number of people in the gallery when we visited last weekend. Without a doubt, Robert Rauschenberg is a pop art icon and the Tate's blockbuster exhibition highlights his epic career. But - is it good really? We weren't quite sure. Then we took a detour across the hall to pop into the Wifredo Lam exhibition - an artist working just slightly before Rauschenberg who we had never heard of. We were blown away. I'll take Lam over Rauschenberg any day, and you should too. 

People seem to really really like pop art. If you want to sell out an art exhibition, the pop artists seem to be a pretty good way to go, and we can understand why. Pop art is a movement towards accessible art, and its take on modern life is still accessible and engaging today. Robert Rauschenberg, a contemporary of Andy Warhol and part of a circle of American artists including Jasper Johns, is most famous for his mixed-media collages. He isn't technically a pop artist, more an abstract expressionist, but you'd forgive the confusion as Rauschenberg made an effort for his art to reflect the world around him.

Where Rauschenberg diverges from people like Hockney and Warhol is that his work is actually very conceptual. For example, he collaborated across his whole career with dancers, even performing himself in an experimental dance company in the 1960s. From his early days as an art student at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg was an artist who questioned what art was. The first room of the exhibition features a completely white canvas painted by the artist which was originally shown alongside an original score by a composer friend, which was just 4 minutes of silence.

So to some extent, it is really interesting that Rauschenberg was working a time where someone could do live performances which included sticking pieces of found radio equipment to canvases, or just decide to become an experimental choreographer. But for me (as a non-art person) the whole exhibition felt- off-putting, self-indulgent maybe. The idea you could just travel for work and call the experience the 'Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange' shows a hubris which is both fascinating and uncomfortable. By the time we finished, I felt a bit like - oh this is why people don't like modern art.

Then, on a whim, we decided to walk across the hallway to visit the Wifredo Lam exhibition, an artist who, to be completely honest, we had never heard of. Compared with the ram-packed Rauschenberg exhibition, the Lam was practically empty. And we have no idea why. The exhibition starts with the quote 'My painting is an act of decolonisation' - a statement as challenging as Lam's work. Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist born to a Chinese father and an Afro-Cuban mother in 1902. He studied art in Havana and in Madris, fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In the 1930s he lived in Paris and joined the surrealist circle of Joan Miro and was friend with Picasso. In the Second World War he ended up in a French internment camp, before returning to Cuba. Lam lived through a lot - and his art has a lot to say.

Lam's paintings are mystical, joyful, and visionary. Much of his work draws on Santeria beliefs- a religion native to Cuba which combines Yoruba beliefs with Spanish Catholicism. The huge abstract pieces which dominate the exhibition blend African influences with surrealism. Lam worked head-on to address racism and poverty as he experienced it throughout his career. However, as an artist Lam was in his life time well received and well respected, not the least by his surrealist colleagues in America, Spain and France.

Where Rauschenberg's works feel in places self-obsessed, Lam's paintings are over-flowing with emotion and energy. His retrospective is a map of his interactions with the dynamic surrealist circle and his own personal journey (including the death of his wife and child and political upheaval). And yet its Rauschenberg's exhibition which is packed, and barely a soul in Lam's? It seems suspicious that so many people would line up for a white American and no one has seemingly heard of this Afro-Cuban genius. The art of decolonization indeed. Still, it is wonderful to see such a groundbreaking Afro-Caribbean artist showcased at the Tate, and indeed the Lam exhibition covers at least as much floor space as Rauschenberg.

So - go to see Rauschenberg if you must. His 'Mud Muse' installation is very cool, and of course his mixed media collages capture something of the adventurous 1960s- but Lam is the real star of the show. Better hurry and visit quick- Wifredo Lam closes on the 8th of January!

Friday, 16 December 2016

Ministry Guide to Holiday Exhibitions!

It's that time of year again- the city is covered in trees and twinkly lights and, for many of us, friends and family descend for the festive season. So whether you are stuck at home with extended family or have friends crashing on your floor to enjoy Christmas in the city, exhibitions are a great way to keep everyone entertained (and out of your hair). But what's good to see? Don't worry, we've got you covered with our Ministry top 10 holiday exhibition picks! From the Cuban Picasso to taxidermy to a Dickensian Christmas- London's museums are catering to everyone this Christmas season...  

1) Making Nature at the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome's blockbuster offering for the Christmas season, Making Nature is a very different take on the natural history collection. Rather than just displaying animals by region or type, this exhibition tries to get to the bottom about how we see and think about animals. From taxonomic classification to modern attempts at cloning and genetic modification, the exhibition prompts us to think about how we have interacted with and changed the natural world. It's not for everyone, but a thoughtful and off-beat exhibition that will start some interesting conversations. It certainly will make you think differently about Planet Earth II!

2) Silent Night at the Dennis Severs House

If you can get tickets, this is absolutely one of our favourite annual festive traditions. The Dennis Severs house in Spitalfields is worth a visit anytime of year, but its especially lovely at Christmas. A cross between a museum and an art installation, a silent trip through the Severs house takes you through all the sights and scents of the holiday season across the ages. Start downstairs in the seventeenth century basement and finish with a riotous late Victorian celebration. Stop across the street at the Water Poet for a mulled wine after. A great date and a fun evening with friends.

3) Lives, Loves and Loss: Traces at Fenton House

If you have more of an artsy crowd to please, then this exhibition at Fenton House in Hampstead might be for you. Artists, designs and makers have taken over the 17th century merchants house for a special theatrical experience until the 23rd of December. Untold stories come to life through specially commissioned interventions, including an 8 course menu of scented napkins by Ministry friend AVM Curiosities! Plus you can even take an afternoon wander in near by Hampstead Heath. A lovely day out. Booking recommended.

4) Christmas at the Dickens Museum

Maybe you want to go a little more traditional, and nothing says Christmas in London like Charles Dickens. I mean, Dickens literally defined the Christmas spirit in a Christmas Carol right? Decked out for a mid-nineteenth century celebration, wander through the rooms of the Dickens family and feel transported in time. An annual trip for many, and a definite crowd pleaser.

5) Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery

This exhibition has been a big hit for the National Gallery and lucky for you, runs through the Christmas period. As the title suggests, the exhibition isn't solely about the famous Italian painter, although they have shipped in some of his most spectacular works. What the exhibition does so well is show how Caravaggio revolutionised art. Perfect for fans of his dramatic light and dark paintings. Worth it to see work by Artemesia Gentileschi - one of the most badass female painters of all time.

6) Emma Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum

We are ashamed to say we haven't actually seen this exhibition but have heard very very good things. We like the NMM's brave departure from the traditional 'brave men at sea' theme to tackle the life and times of Emma Hamilton's, arguably the most famous celebrities of the late eighteenth century. The maritime connection comes in with Hamilton infamously being Lord Nelson's mistress, but she is so much more than that. The exhibition explores not only Hamilton's fascinating career and unstoppable spirit, but also thinks more broadly about celebrity. Plus, you get to spend the day in lovely Greenwich, a great trip with the family.

7) Wifredo Lam at the Tate Modern

This underrated exhibition at the Tate Modern is definitely definitely worth your time if you are a fan of modern art. Don't worry, the crowds at the Tate Modern might be swarming for Robert Rauschenberg, but the Lam exhibition offers some welcome respite. Which is strange since it is (in our eyes) the superior exhibition. Lam, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and an Afro-Cuban mother, spent the 1920s, 30s and 40s witnessing some of the most tumultuous political times of the twentieth century. From the rise of Castro in his native Cuba, to the surrealists in Paris, Franco in Madrid, Lam even found his way into a French internment camp in the Second World War. His work reflects his Cuban culture and his relationship with the French and Spanish surrealists. Picasso loved his stuff, and we know you will to. A must see.

8) Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy

Ok so if we are in the artistic mood, we have to mention Abstract Expressionism at the RA. If you like the American abstract expressionists then you will not be disappointed by this exhibition which brings together works from the likes of Rothko, Pollock and De Kooning. A miniature MOMA in London. The RA provides a perfect space for the towering, chaotic work of these artists. Not as many female artists as we might like, but worth a visit for being an art history lesson in one exhibition. Plus the RA shop is always awesome for last minute gifts.

9) Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum

Guys, we just had to do it. We know we talk about it every year, but nothing says Christmas like the period rooms at the Geffrye Museum. With displays covering the seventeenth century to today, find out more about how we celebrated Christmas in the past. Family friendly and always a hit with your older relatives, the Geffrye is always a gorgeous Christmas treat, complete with a lovely cafe. For something maybe not so festive, but equally interesting, check out their exhibition on teenage bedrooms.

10) The Design Museum

Ok maybe not an exhibition, but how often does a major museum get a complete refurb? The Design Museum has just relocated to South Kensington, taking over the old Commonwealth Institute and transforming it with a new avant-guard roof. Current exhibitions include Fear and Love- rooms installed to reflect on life, design and politics. You can even meet an industrial robot. Worth a visit for the new building alone.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Ministry Gift Guide: 2016 Edition

 The Ministry is here to provide the ultimate gifts for any museum lover this Christmas, whether it be your pal, sibling, partner or neighbour we've scoured the museum shops for our favourite treats for Christmas 2016. 

1. The Museum of Cathy by Anna Stothard £8.99. As a curator of Natural History in Berlin the protagonist sees her place of work Museum fur Naturkunde through the eyes of a museum worker and as a lover of objects uses her personal collection to tell her story. A great read for any museum worker or lover with a familiar look at the objects, practices and difficulties that museum professionals face alongside a very personal tale. 

2. Hendrix Candle £10 from Handel & Hendrix in London
You can visit the space that Hendrix slept in and now you can smell it too. Although this candle isn't scented the recreated room of the great musician - good museum practice there! - you can take home the suspected smell of the place. An interesting combination of Sandalwood and Whiskey its pretty special one by Lucy Annabella Organics. 

3. Guerilla Girls range at Tate 
Formed in the 80's this female activist group highlighted discrimination in the art world perhaps most prolifically in recent years with their 2004 'do women still have to be naked to get into the met museum?' poster. now you can take an exclusive to Tate poster home detailing 'the advantages of being a female artist' along with an air freshener with decorated like their iconic gorilla masks. This is like girl power mercy for adults, we'll take some! 

4. Elephant Mousepad, Design Museum 
The design museum has landed at its new site in Kensington, and no doubt their new shop is a winner too. we've only had a chance to check out their online merch so far and think any museum lover would love some desk junk from the great retailer. Even for £22 its a great addition to any museum desk. 

5. T-Rex Skull pendant
It's not a ministry gift guide without something from the NHM shop. This time its all about the T-Rex skull pendant for £50 why not walk around with a dino hanging around your neck? 

6. Feather pattern notebook, NHM Shop. 
Sorry not sorry, we love this shop too much to feature just one item (please give us everything from the boutique!) More stationary is needed with this multicoloured notebook as a stocking filler. Plus the print comes on a cushion too! 

7. Cross Stitch Map, £25, British Library 
For when you need to relax how about a bit of stitch work and learning about continents! Double learning = double fun! In conjunction with their maps exhibition check out this piece from the BL 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

All of the lights: Gods own Junkyard

Walthamstow is on the up and we've been hearing about it for the past few years, but what makes a place really cool?  An unusual art gallery on a run down industrial park is often the ticket to a time out listing. But Gods Own Junkyard isn't the run of the mill addition to an up and coming area its been a stalemate display room for the local neon sign factory Electro Signs and artist Chris Bracey for sometime.

Known as the Master of Neon, Chris Bracey was the shining star of his family's neon light business Electro Signs where he specialised in the seedy lights of Soho sex shops. Inspired by the American light artist Bruce Nauman he saw the potential for creativity and artistic license in his lighting business and his unit in Walthamstow soon become a workshop and display space for his own handiwork and many others until his death by 2014. 

Not quite a museum or art gallery but an active collection, the unit features over 700 items made by Bracey and Electro signs available for purchase or perusal. The lights are not noted with details of their title, year make or description. Nonetheless this is a thrilling visual overload and one that should be experience while listening to this:

With faith playing a key part in Bracey's exploration into light art, many items feature contempt - models of Jesus with neon guns placed into his open palms, a Louis Vuitton encrusted Madonna placed carefully and messily next familiar cheeky sex shop signs or arcades. Nonetheless Bracey's work goes further than the unit in Walthamstow, as a skilled craftsman he was occasionally contracted to make the works of other artists including Martin Creed, Work Number 232 'the whole wold + the work = the world world' currently on display in Tate Modern. 

Visiting this unit in Walthamstow is a real visual treat and what's even better about this place is that you can enjoy a coffee or locally made beer, discuss the cost of their electricity bill whilst still sitting among all of the lights.  

God's Own Junkyard is open Friday and Saturday 11am - 9pm and Sunday 11am - 6pm.