26th January 2014:  The Museum of Marco Polo has been looking into the future.  These are our seven predictions for the UK in 2014, and three more for the world beyond our shores.  Read them and tell us if we are right.

  • Anyone who can make a museum financially sustainable will walk on water. They will be king, emperor and all-round hero in the new world.
  • Museums will begin to see themselves as content creators. They will look at all their resources – not just the artefacts but the letters and diaries, photographs, films, people, memories and stories – and then look at all the platforms that are available out there.  Gradually museums will begin to see themselves as media companies.  They will even begin to see themselves as lucky to have so much content.
  • Side by side with this, the digital world will cease to be a threat.  You will no longer hear the mantra:  ‘we want people to look at the objects, not play with a digital device’.  We will all watch and learn from the way that anyone under 25 uses social media – weaving a complex dance that continually crosses and re-crosses from the digital to the real, and back again.  The possibilities in that dance will become apparent to us all.  Those who send out museum tweets will be invited upstairs from the basement where they currently reside.
  • Museums will increasingly see the possibilities in their ‘wrap’ – the shop, cafe, restaurant and all the rest that surround the gallery experience.  Museum directors will no longer be embarrassed to describe themselves as landlords, shop keepers and restaurateurs.
  • The big, frontline London museums will continue to attract visitors by the millions, but everybody else will struggle.  This echoes the split we see in publishing where the mid list has vanished and a few writers make fortunes whilst everyone else limps along.  The key proportions are 10/90 and we will see them everywhere.  It’s enough to make you believe in numerology.
  • Expect local authorities to continue their schizophrenic attitude to culture.  Is it a shocking drain on local finances, or a tourist magnet that will sustain the local community?
  • Museums will increasingly demand flexibility in everything and especially in displays. It’s not only lack of money driving this, it’s also a sign of the times – where fluidity is valued higher than things that are fixed (look at the rise and rise of the Activity Plan).  And so museums will ask for displays that are affordable, flexible, easy to change and always good-looking, whatever anyone does to them. And designers will scratch their heads, wonder how to square so many circles, and then try to oblige.

And for the world beyond our shores –

  • Museums in developing countries will catch up remarkably quickly. It’s taken UK museums 250 years to get to where we are (and truth be told, we do museums remarkably well) but it will take countries round the world only a fraction of that time to draw level.
  • Countries that have begun by building buildings will realise that a museum is far more than bricks and mortar. Expect a swift about turn here.
  • Freed from our historical expectations of what a museum should be, we will see some fantastically innovative approaches to museum-making in some unexpected places.

 

The beautiful 18th century style silhouettes are from Art Work by E.K.Duncan at www.ekduncan.com

 

14th January 2014:  Don’t ask me how it does it but one of the most poignant and touching of London museums is one that breaks all the rules:  no Level 1 texts, no lighting to speak of, and displays that have scarcely been touched in the 10 years that I’ve known it. And yet, for charm, poignancy and more than a little strangeness, Pollocks Toy Museum is up there with the best of them.

It sits behind Goodge Street Station in a couple of old brick houses that lean up against each other in a crooked, dolls house way. At its heart is a collection of toy theatres once belonging to a Mr Benjamin Pollock, a modest and diffident man billed by history as ‘the last of the toy theatre makers’.  To this collection has been added a collections of dolls, dolls houses, board games, toy soldiers and 19th century optical toys.

Look in through the windows and you will see all the trappings we find so appealing, of a prosperous,19th century childhood.  But go inside and climb the stairs and you will soon find the pretty nostalgia undercut by currents that are much sharper and blacker. The dolls are stunning but they are not necessarily cosy.

Wax can give a doll a death-like sheen.  Others have the white skin and rosey cheeks of the consumptive.  (I am reminded of something I once read, that in 19th century London the doll-making families, the Bazzoni, the Montani and the Pierotti, who all specialised in dolls made from wax, used their own children’s hair and modelled the dolls’ faces from those of their own children.  It is a feature of the dolls’ story that it drifts very quickly into strange waters.)

Pollocks, in short, is full of ghosts.

But I am here today to look at the optical toys – the magic lanterns and the Praxinoscope, a toy from the 1870’s that you could spin round faster and faster until it seems to unfold a moving story.  What I love about these toys is that it was from these that the mighty, 20th century cinema industry evolved.  (And if, at this point, you go down on your knees and peer closely at the back of the case you will see one of the original lantern slides, showing a dancing devil in a blue jacket. He is horned and tailed, and is tapping his cloven heels in rhythm with a dancing girl.)

All museums are about lost worlds but children’s museums are about lost worlds doubled, because the children have grown up and gone, whilst Pollocks feels removed a third time, because it stands outside the current of mainstream museum development.

Something curious happens to museums when they don’t change. They become less about a dialogue between past and present and more of an intense hit of ‘pastness’.  And whilst I love that hit of ‘pastness’ and would defend the right of every museum to be exactly what it wants to be, there are times when I would want Pollocks to change a little.

I would like it to be a bit more, well, playful.  I would love to see a magic lantern projection so that I could see the dancing devil strutting his stuff. (So not modern technology but more insight into how the 19th century technology worked.)  And I would love it to communicate more and to help me understand  more about the strange world on which it is a window, the world of lost childrens’ childhoods.

 

 

 

 

We are beginning 2014 with a series on Wondrous Objects, those artefacts that stand out even in a rich collection, for their strangeness, their skill, their associations or their historical significance. We begin our series with Jacqueline Simcox, a London-based specialist on Chinese textiles and works of art, who writes on a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I in the famous portrait from Hardwick Hall.

Jacqueline writes:  ‘The painting is life-sized, Elizabeth I in resplendent glory, standing by an ornate chair with a royal cypher on the red velvet cushion.elizabeth hardwick hall vertical

‘It is undoubtedly Elizabeth, her face so familiar to us, the sixty-six year old monarch with haughty, pallid expression, standing on a richly woven carpet, a pair of gloves in her right hand and a circular fan in her left.

‘Why does she stand for her portrait gazing out of the canvas beyond the viewer? What message does it send to us, four hundred years later?  Surely it is to show off that dress – nothing being allowed to take away from the glory of the costume, its richness proclaiming wealth and position.

‘Imagine what you would think if you could just stand beside her.  You would pause, transfixed by such luxury; unlike anything you had ever seen. Look carefully. The lace ruff alone is a masterpiece of lace-making. Then there is the black velvet gown, with puffed-out sleeves, deepest black, the cost of the dyes beyond the purse of an ordinary citizen and embellished with such a wanton display of jewels; the sleeves with spangles, rubies or was it clever, red-coloured glass made to deceive the eye and make the riches of England outdo all others? The gown’s skirt – more black velvet, adorned with pear-shaped, pearl drops around the edges and circular pearls marching in matched pairs over all the rest – such wealth from foreign divers brought to royal service – all overwhelming value and proclaiming her Virgin status.

‘Remember too the Sumptuary Laws, enacted by Elizabeth, to preserve her right alone to wear such luxury and granted to those few favourites beyond. Who else could afford such a velvet gown, which is not even kept for posterity but lives only in the memory and on the canvas, the pearls removed and reused, too precious to be kept unseen, the velvet handed on, or re-modelled for another costume.

‘Beneath, revealed under the gown, its skirts drawn back like theatre curtains, is a pure creamy-white silk satin kirtle, the glory of the portrait, entrancing the eye. Where did that silk spring from?  From Chinese trade, from captured vessels, or Huguenot looms newly set up in London? – speaking of piracy at sea or continental fracas with the old Catholic enemy, but all England’s gain, when such luxury came to these shores. No surprise then that by decree the English aristocracy should plant mulberry trees on their estates to feed the moths who made such wondrous threads and in turn fed the insatiable desire for such cloth.

‘What message does this costume hold?  The Virgin Queen, adorned in white, the purity of it all, and at the height of her power – the Armada behind her, the Spanish fleet defeated, and Drake, circling the world for her, bringing back immense wealth to stuff the coffers of England. Now in the year 1599 she could stand here, an all-conquering Queen, admired abroad, and displaying history on her dress.

‘The costume says it all:  the creamy silk, stretched on a frame and painted with such verve; the exquisite decoration, each element with its double meaning; and the flowers.  First the coloured lilies: red, yellow and pink, reminder of her Virgin status; then the irises and Tudor rose – emblem of royalty, interspersed with joyful butterflies and birds; the songbirds; the kingfisher, the royal swan and goose; and the animals of her kingdom.

‘But hidden danger lurks in the pair of snakes writhing amongst them; perhaps symbols of a fickle court, of male egos vying for position and favours from the Queen.  Above all, there are the sea monsters, catching the eye: the whale in central place; dolphins in pairs; a dragon with wings and tusks, rising from the waves; and there, under her left hand, the largest of them all, a true monster to terrify, its curled, lashing tail, long snout and razor teeth, quelled beneath her hand, pressed back into the depths of the dark velvet gown – overcome as were all England’s sea-borne enemies.

‘And what of the fan? Would that survive? Sadly, no. Its circular form of white feathers and small tendrils, playfully adorning its surface, moving provocatively in the slightest breath of air, echoes the moon in mist and Raleigh’s poem, that likens his Queen to Cynthia, goddess of the Moon and controller of the seas, as the Queen controlled her country, seas and land; triumphant ruler over all.’

The Hardwick Portrait is currently on display as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on ‘Elizabeth 1 and her People’.  The exhibition ends on the 5th  January so you will have to hurry to see it in London.   Afterwards it will return to Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire where it is part of the Devonshire Collection.

What would your Wondrous Object be?