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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. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Hipster Museum: Handel & Hendrix in London

Museum offices are often fantasied about as dusty treasure troves with tomes of accession registers and objects adorning the desk, however we all know in reality they are like any other office environment but with less room hidden away in cupboards and basements museum offices aren’t as exciting as they may seem. But for the staff at Handel House Museum their office was once the space that Jimi Hendrix slept, played records and hosted. Now although unlikely to have contained any of his remnants that’s a pretty cool museum office.

Thanks to a heritage Lottery Fund Project, the Handel House trust received a grant to recreate Hendrix flat and improve visitor’s facilities as part of a three-year redevelopment – but where did the museum offices go?

The reinstatement of Hendrix’s flat has been a successful one and has bought a new vigour to the house museum and gives visitors an opportunity to further understand the lives of the two prominent musicians through the place that once called home. For 36 years Handel composed and lived in the Georgian house, opening in 2001 the Handel House museum aims to promote the knowledge and enjoyment of Handel through their creation of his home and his music and recently added to their mission the promotion of the continued diversity of the neighbouring house 23 Brock street through its association with Jimi Hendrix. Both houses are the only homes of both musicians that still exist!

Entering the property is an exciting escape from the busy side streets of Oxford street behind a brightly painted red door, up a crooked and squeaky staircase we explored the life of Handel – although interesting we were really there to see the Hendrix addition so a first glimpse into the costume room was an exciting and silly experience. Invited to try on costumes from both musicians, take selfies and pose as Handel and Hendrix alongside each other. A bit of fun but it was really interesting to see how some costumes could have been either personalities.

Making a final climb to Hendrix flat at the top of Handel’s house and across we were greeted into a room full of information, AV and graphics filled the room with facts about Hendrix life and time in London, noting its proximity to the bustling streets Hendrix has given his then girlfriend Kathy etchingham a wad of cash to go out and decorate the place with fabrics from Liberty and John Lewis. Fortunately, one of Hendrix guitars was also featured in the exhibition space as part of the introduction to his life.

The real thrill however came from the recreation of his bedroom, right down to the two telephones and cigarette trays, surprisingly tidy apparently from his time spent in the army many consultations were conducted with his then girlfriend Kathy to get the place just right - even a few last minute tweaks over skype! The room has a private and nostalgic feel even in its recreation. My favourite part however was the remaining treads of staircase let just outside the room that used to lead to the pink bathroom – a visual and practical remidnder of the space as a home and on longer as a museum office. 

Hendrix addition to Handel house has made it an accessible house museum and a great way to celebrate the diversity and richness of London’s musical history. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Bedlam at the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection's blockbuster offering for thus autumn's exhibition season takes another look at the asylum. Riding on a tide of interest in mental health issues, and the perennially popular Victorians, Bedlam has proved, yet again, that the Wellcome's brand is thriving. From it's own custom twitter bot, to lectures, blogs and even a photo-booth (#spiritbooth)- Bedlam is accompanied by all the best public engagement that a museum can offer. But, is it a good exhibition? The Ministry is very conflicted...

Guys, it has taken us a long time to sit down to write this review. Bedlam has so many strong points about it that it feels unfair to say we didn't like it. However, it definitely has some iffy parts about it as well so its difficult to say that wholesale it was great. 

Let's just take for example the Madlove Asylum. The Madlove Asylum is an installation at the end of the exhibition which is clearly intended to be the piece de resistance. It's even screened off from the main gallery space just so that you don't get lured in by exciting drawings and the scale model and miss the rest of the exhibition. Madlove is a separate (Wellcome funded) organisation composed of artists who have worked with a number of mental health stakeholders, including certified patients, to create a new vision for what the asylum could be. Is it possible to go mad in a safe way? If you designed your asylum what would it be like? Visitors are asked. 

The installation is dominated by a brilliant blue landscape model doted with cheerful angular pink structures and golden furniture. The Madlove asylum is like a site-specific piece of art but inspired by people in inpatient hospital care for psychiatric issues. A running track, an artist workshop, a library and even a market garden make this designer asylum sound an idyllic place for anyone dealing with any kind of mental health issue. Visitors are even invited to take a way a small 'pocket asylum' where they can write themselves reminders for when things get tough.

The Madlove Asylum is so good in fact, it kind of feels like the Wellcome wanted to have an exhibition about it and everything else was built backwards. The inclusion of patient art from Bethlem Hospital in the nineteenth and twenteith centuries is interesting, but doesn't really seem to have the same kind of narrative purpose. Is it an exhibition about asylum history, or asylum art? Asylums in art? The first room about Bethlem hospital in the eighteenth century seems a bit like that boring introductory bit your teachers make you write. (Why are there so many pictures of a hospital in Belgium - isn't this meant to be about English asylums? Or is about the development of the asylum system generally?)

I think the real concern about Bedlam is that it is a very 'Wellcome' exhibition. The brand has become so confident in fact that their exhibitions are becoming well, a bit predictable. A catchy artistic intervention to start, a room of historic contextualization, a room which blends objects and art in an unexpected way, and then some artistic interventions to finish it all off. Even the small bits of the exhibition which were trying to provide some historic narrative about the development of asylum treatment in the UK fade a bit into the background, overshadowed by the need to make everything COOL ART ALL THE TIME.

Let's be very clear about one thing- we love the Wellcome. We love the gallery, we love the exhibitions, the Reading Room, the events. We love how they have changed peoples minds about what exhibitions can be. We really really love their social media and engagement. Empathy Deck (a twitter bot developed just got the Bedlam exhibition) is about the greatest thing ever, and leaves you fun little messages on your twitter throughout the day. It's a cross between CBT and an art-installation (seriously follow @empathydeck). Our worry is just that, in terms of the exhibition design, the Wellcome might be getting a little too comfortable with the formula that has brought them such success. But what made a Wellcome exhibition so exciting was its willingness to be different and original. Let's hope is stays that way! 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Colour and Vision

There’s a million extraordinary things about the Natural History Museum in South Ken, its stunning gothic building, it’s incredible permanent displays and of course dinosaurs but over recent years its failed me on the exhibition front,  although the images are great I’ve become a bit tired of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Corals was an interesting idea but didn’t live up to its posters on content (was I the only one who thought there would be more live fish?) but I loved the scenescape of the show.

But spending some time in their latest show Colour and Vision I was completed thrilled to see the density of the collection on display, the incredible design and detailed content – the exhibition really is a feast for the eyes. The shows intention is to ‘Follow a 565-million-year journey through the eyes of nature’ and it does just that.

The exhibition is instantly given an exciting feel as it opens with a light installation by Liz West commissioned by the museum for the exhibition, a great video on the museum website documents the artists journey towards making the work in thinking about the influence of the specimens and their presence in the space too.

Exploirng the evolution of the eye the richness of the Natural History Museums collection is showcased by a whole wall of pickled eyes checking out the visitors and even Darwin's pet Octopus (yep!) makes an appearence to show that the similarities between Octopuses eyes and humans.

The theme of colour is again explored with the richness of the collection and the incredible stacking of showcases in the later sections showing off the full spectrum and discussing how some colour in the natural world can stand the test of time.

This is a really great show from the Natural History Museum not only because of its extraordinary design and showcasing of permenant collections but also because of its presence outside the gallery space. The exhibition posters across London are striking and stimulating and luring to an adult audience. The online participation is for this too with a social media driven interactive where anyone can upload a picture of their eye to feature on the eye wall in the exhibition space and the website. And again the NHM's buyers out do themselves with a fabulous range in the shop including on trend colouring books and colourful homeware.

The exhibition really is a must-see this autumn!

Plus learn more here on the amazing Exhibition Developer Fiona Cole -Hamilton here.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Victorians Decoded at the Guildhall Art Gallery

Hello all our lovely followers! It's officially autumn - the days are cooler, the leaves are starting to turn, and most importantly, it's a new season for exhibitions! Hooray! There are so many exciting things to see over the next few months - but as you must know by now, we are very partial to the Victorians and anything Victoriana. So first on our list has to be The Victorians Decoded at the Guildhall Art Gallery. We fell in love with the gallery a few years ago during their Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition, so we were very excited for some more 19th century fun. This time teemed up with KCL and the Courtauld Institute the exhibition aimed to incorporate science and technology (namely the laying of the Transatlantic Cable) into how we see Victorian art. But does it succeed? 

In 1858, the first Transatlantic cable was laid, which allowed Queen Victoria and the President of the United States, James Buchanan, to exchange the first ever official transatlantic telegram. Unfortunately the line went down a few weeks later, but finally in 1866, a more permanent cable was established. Telegraph technology was not only handy for heads of state to exchange formalities, the speed of information sharing had significant effects on the world economy and the way everyday life was experienced. The Victorians Decoded sets out to discover how telegraph technology revolutionized life in the nineteenth century, and how this was captured by art. The exhibition is structured around four thematic focuses: Distance, Transmission, Coding and Resistance. 

We love exhibitions which combine art and science. Having King's College London as a partner not only contributes to the research aspect, but allows KCL to show off some of its impressive object collections. Your first real 'wow' moment on entering the exhibition is a striking collection of Daniel cells which, together, form an early battery. This metal behemoth was used to send electrical impulse down the miles of transatlantic cables. The first room themed around 'distance' is filled with seascapes, including some impressive Henry Moore paintings. Personally, the most exciting were the large maps visualizing the rapidly increasing networks of telegraph lines over the closing decades of the nineteenth century. 

In the main exhibition space, two small cases of objects are surrounded by large scale paintings. I particularly enjoyed the case featuring books of code, showing how the use of codes became a part of everyday life. But this is kind of where the literal connection between the cable and the art kind of comes to an end. The paintings in each thematic space link only really metaphorically to the endeavour of the cable, and some more tenuously than others. This work by Tissot (above), called The Last Evening, and appropriately set on a ship, considers the social codes which governed Victorian interactions. A beautiful piece by Frederick Leighton called The Music Lesson, considers how the vibrations of the guitar into music can be related to the passing of electrical signals along the cable. We kind of doubt Leighton was thinking about telegraphy when he painted this, but we definitely get the comparison. More tenuous might be the piece about the constructions of the pyramids in which the effort is compared to the difficulty of laying the cable. Or in which the Mayor's Parade is seen as a 'transmission of tradition'.

You do get the sense that themes were selected, and curators trawled through the collections of the Guildhall, the Courtauld, and Royal Holloway for things even loosely linked to what was being discussed. So - distance, the sea, a seascape by Henry Moore. I had maybe expected to see more art directly influenced by improved communications, maybe something slightly more about travel, or even set in telegraph offices. But then again I'm just a very literal person, and not an art historian, so perhaps I'm just too literal for this exhibition. Then again, if the purpose was to show off the spectacular Courtauld and Guildhall collections of late nineteenth century art, it certainly does that to excellent effect.

In the end, Victorians Decoded is a bit more art than it is science, so it depends on what exactly you are after. As an exhibition of nineteenth century painting, it brings together a diverse and fascinating collections of works for you to consider in a new light. I can't help but wish there was a bit more of an object focus to it, but then again if you wanted to see that you would probably be in the Information Age Gallery and not the Guildhall. In either case, the artworks are stunning, and the rationale behind it, to think more broadly about the influence of telegraphy, is certainly original. All in all, Victorians Decoded is definitely worth a visit as a celebration of an important milestone as well as the chance to see some iconic nineteenth century paintings in a new light. Worth the trip just for the giant painting of attacking polar bears, because, why not. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Should you help the Victor Wynd Museum get a mummy?

Over the past week social media has suddenly been preoccupied with, what we must admit, is one of the strangest crowdfunding projects we've ever seen. The Victor Wynd Museum in Hackney is trying to buy the mummified head of a 1000 year old Peruvian child, for the somewhat bizarre fundraising goal of £6666.00.  While it is presented by the Museum in its indigogo page as a bit of good fun, and 'money well spent', we certainly can see some red flags with the whole affair. Does Hackney really need a mummy? And if it does, why should it go to the Victor Wynd Museum? Most importantly, should you give your hard earned cash to Victor Wynd to achieve it? To try and figure it out, we've taken sides for and against. We leave it up to you to decide.


The Victor Wynd Museum opened two years ago with money raised from over 500 contributors. Developed from the artist's original Last Tuesday Society, the Museum combines taxidermy, art and human and animal remains to create its own unique spin on the Cabinet of Curiosities. Since it's inauguration, the Museum has already brought in over 15,000 visitors - a testament to its popularity and the support of the surrounding Hackney Community. Kitted out with a bar and lounging areas, the Museum hosts exhibitions alongside its unique displays. They might have the gold-encrusted rhino skull of Pablo Escobar but what they don't have is a mummy. And why shouldn't they?

As the tag line for the fundraising campaign states, the British Museum has thousands of mummies, so why shouldn't Hackney have just one? But the fact of the matter is that small museums like Wynd's play an important role in communities. Small museums might not necessarily follow all of the same standards of display and interpretation of accredited ones, but that doesn't make the engagement they do with their audiences any less important. Death and dying is a central theme of Wynd's displays, and who is to say the only way to present that subject is the way a big museum might? It is perhaps the kinds of people who are put-off by the somewhat old-fashioned institutions who enjoy visiting Wynd's, and shouldn't they have an equal right to engage with mummies?

Let's not forget, museums themselves arose out of the same exhibitionary impulse that resulted in freak shows and even shopping malls. The desire to see and discuss the interesting and unusual is still at the core of what even large accredited museums do - albeit mediated by new professional standards. Also, it's important to point out that while it might be uncomfortable to some people, the Museum isn't doing anything illegal in acquiring the mummy. Human remains over 100 years old and their display are not covered by the Human Tissue Act, and in their fundraising the Museum acknowledges that they need to build a special environmentally controlled case to house their new acquisition. If the idea of putting a price tag on human remains makes you uncomfortable, you have to remember that other museums and collectors are going to be competing to buy this mummified head anyway. If there is an issue with anything, I think the question is why is the Uppsalla Museum selling this mummified head? But seeing as how it is being sold, why shouldn't it be in Hackney?

Sure anus chocolate and whale penis bones aren't the normal sort of membership perks you get from a museum, but they certainly get your attention. If museums, and particularly fundraising officers, are wondering how it is you reach out to young people, they could maybe learn a thing or two from Victor Wynd. 'Millenials' (and you know how much we hate that word) like experiences, different and unique experiences. And participating in this fundraising campaign is certainly one! The recent success of the Eric crowdfunding project at the Science Museum shows people are keen to be involved in museum projects, particularly with prizes on the line. And yet I somehow feel more uncomfortable with a national museum like the Science Museum getting money from the public than a small start up like Victor Wynd which exists almost purely from donations.

Giving money to the campaign is definitely not for everyone. I mean - it takes a specific kind of person to really want to own some mummy dust. But I don't think we can say that's the 'wrong' way to interact with history. If the thought of taking a mummy head home with you floats your boat, or maybe makes you want to learn more about Peruvian mummies, then by all means donate! The crowdfunding is certainly a good way to start some very interesting conversations about humans remains, display and the public.


'Hackney NEEDS a mummy'  the words are blasted across the Internet and a big banner campaign in the borough whilst we always support smaller museums is this really an appropriate campaign when talking about the mummified remains of a human child? Museums and Galleries have had a consistent and challenging dialogue regarding the display of human remains over the past twenty years and although the 1000 year old remains do not fall into any murky legal water they do fall into the huge ethical debate about how such objects can be cared for and displayed. 

While the Victor Wynd Museum's displays isn't dictated to by DCMS, nor listed as an accredited museum it does not have to adhere to the codes of ethics. However, this is still a publicly accessible space and therefore its display of human remains should remain respectful and responsible with a significant emphasise on its cultural understanding. As you can currently dine on the showcase of other human remains in this museum is there a real respect for the sensitivities of the dead and does this  act advance visitors knowledge? 

The campaign so far hasn't given much information as to the provenance and history of the object. From some brief research the Chimu people within their belief systems were partial to sacrificing shells and their children to their preferred god - the moon. Doesn't this need to be reflected within the museum's campaign? Isn't it important to discuss this also in the justification of the acquisition like with most other museums? The Wellcome Collection does currently have a mummy on display from this same indigenous group yet their tactics online and in its gallery space are much more sensitive, opening up a dialogue about the display. If the Wellcome can, why can't Victor Wynd?

On an initial look it appears that the Victor Wynd museum is acting out as a spoilt child in their comparisons with other boroughs collections and the crowdfunding campaign is perhaps a bit vulgar in its offerings to donors. For £5 you can have an imaginary kiss and for £30 you can have a pinch of mummy dust from the showcase - ergh what? And for a very generous £2000 you can take the mummy away with you for a night and drive it about in your own car - in this case any consideration for collections care really has gone way out of the window. Asking for £6666 for the mummy the campaign so far has only reach 11% of its backing yet hopes for more to ensure that the museum can buy a fancy climate controlled showcase - but what happens if they don't reach the expanding goal? Do the remains just go into an uncontrolled showcase or really are they asking for something they can achieve without crowdfunding? 

There is no doubt that this is a contentious and insensitive ask from the museum. Shouldn't the preservation and interpretation of the collection be core to its campaign to acquire more from your pockets?

In typical Ministry fashion we've argued both sides and hopefully haven't lost our ability to visit Victor Wynd's ( we are big fans of the museum and their talk programmes) but in the name of museum loving controversy we've had our say, now what are your thoughts? 

Friday, 9 September 2016

Taxidermy at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Here at the Ministry we are all about London – but on the occasions that we do get to travel, we obviously have to report back about our museum adventures. On a recent trip to New York we finally had the opportunity to visit the place we like to think of as our spiritual home in the US- the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. We arrived, unannounced, on the eve of the opening of the Museum’s new exhibition Taxidermy: Art, Science and Immortality, featuring the famous Kitten Wedding tableau by English taxidermist Walter Potter. Despite the spontaneous nature of our visit, Creative Director Joanna Ebenstein took some time out to speak to us about the exhibition and the work of the museum.

As we walked in the door it was immediately apparent we had not come at a good time. With the exhibition opening shortly, install was not quite finished yet, and an impending courier arrival was the focus of the staff. Possibly because she is one of the most generous and kind people working in the field, Joanna decided to take some time out to take us through our first visit to the museum and even into the as yet unopened exhibition space. With the museum all to ourselves, Joanna told us more about the exhibition, the Library and some of the ins-and-outs of running a small museum.

The dream for the Museum had arisen from the original Morbid Anatomy Library- a resource centre created by Joanna using her own books and object collection which she has amassed through her own research and curatorial work. She explained how, unlike us lucky sods in London with our Wellcome Collection, our Science Museum, our Hunterian, there wasn’t any space in New York to have academic discussions about art, death, science and beauty. The Library still forms the heart of the Morbid Anatomy Museum – an inviting space on the second floor where people can come to read, chat and explore through Ebenstein’s ever growing collection. Unlike a traditional museum, you can actually handle any of the items on open display in the library room – from votive candles to bottles, artificial teeth and medical x-rays. The space had been transformed in honour of the exhibition to have a special natural history twist.

The star of the show however is of course the exhibition space, consisting of two hall-ways and a large central display area which showcases the Taxidermy exhibition. The display seeks to delve deeper into the many different aspects of taxidermy - the strange, the funny, the scientific, the familiar and the uncomfortable. Although the art of taxidermy can trace its origins to the ancient Egyptians, it wasn't until the nineteenth century when the practice came into its own. Wide spread interest in the natural world, and arguable the connection between the amateur scientist and the wealthy elite, prompted a craze for taxidermy so it became ubiquitous with the English, and indeed American, middle class home. In the world of ever expanding knowledge which characterised the Victorian era, this method of preservation was ideal for bringing home to the West specimens of exotic animals never before seen by the majority of the population. But taxidermy could also be funny (such as the anthropomorphic spanking frog, or a bear who served as a tray bearer), strange (from the world of carnivals and freak shows), exotic (the wall-mounted specimens of fierce predators from Africa, Asia and beyond), or very close to home (as in the display of a beloved pet). Today taxidermy continues to fascinate and repulse us (see Crap Taxidermy) and has become the subject of a renewed collecting interest. 

As we chatted, the staff waited patiently for the Kitten Wedding to arrive. It’s custom case prepared, it was a countdown to the courier’s arrival. While we have generally worked in larger museums and all the protocols that entails, the Morbid Anatomy Museum works largely with private collectors. Although it might lead to slightly harrowing moments when things don’t go according to plan, working closely with the private sphere allows Ebenstein and her collaborators to access untapped resources typically hidden away in the homes of their owners. The lion’s share of this exhibition had come from just such a collector, J.D. Powe, who also curated the display and wrote much of the text. The unique interests of people like Powe and others is what allow Morbid Anatomy to display things like a large collection of stuffed domestic dogs- a focus probably too niche for any museum.

While we weren’t able to see the Kitten Wedding in person, Taxidermy stands alone as a strong exhibition. Of course, the story of Kitten Wedding and Walter Potter, particularly his amateur but loving attempts at the art of taxidermy, fits perfectly with the exhibitions themes. However, from anthropomorphic frogs to elephant’s feat, sawfish tusks, conjoined calves, and even an anteater there is plenty to see. Potter, while perhaps particularly appealing to the average visitor due to his cache as an English folk artist, might be a draw, to overlook the collection of fascinating objects surrounding Kitten Wedding would be to miss the heart of Taxidermy. It is a show about the multifarious ways in which we are fascinated and repulsed by death, and the clever art of preserving life indefinitely. From the show’s earliest examples in the early nineteenth century through to the present day, taxidermy has proved to be an enduring interest for specialist and laypeople alike. If we really had to pick a favourite piece, it would be the Victorian taxidermy bird fireplace guard. Recalling a time when taxidermy birds were a must for any fashionable home, this extraordinary piece mimics the elaborate natural styles of the period in actual preserved animals. Displayed together with a fireplace for effect, we are reminded that taxidermy was once a part of everyday life.

In the end, Kitten Wedding arrived and the exhibition opened seamlessly to glowing reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere. Needless to say, if you do find yourself in the New York area a trip to Morbid Anatomy now (and in the future!) is a must. But as we poked through the gift shop and sat at the large communal table, we were reminded that the Morbid Anatomy Museum is much more than just the exhibition space. It’s a hub which provides a home for anyone interested in the strange and unusual – a conversation starter and a study space. While London has plenty to offer, we think the world needs a few more places like Morbid Anatomy. 

If you can't get to New York to see the show, the Museum has helpfully provided a Youtube tour for all their virtual visitors. Check it out!