Friday, 2 September 2011

Staycation

This week, we've been hanging around in London. I believe the modern word for it is a "Staycation". The idea is that you treat your home town like a holiday destination - get up at a sensible time in the morning, spend a full day wandering around museums and tourist attractions and then head home in the evening.

Of course, London is the ideal place to do this - there are more museums than you could visit in a month, let alone a few days.

So, we wrote out a list of all the museums we'd never been to and thought looked interesting and groupd them together into similar areas of town so we could get around a group in a day. By Wednesday (when we finished the staycation and headed out of town for a couple of days) I did feel a little museum'd out; I had grown tired of looking at things in glass cases with little display labels - but it was good tired. The kind of tired you feel after a long but satisfying day - the kind of full you feel after a delicious but huge meal.

I'd never really thought about museums before in the abstract sense - I always concentrated on the artefacts rather than the idea of a museum itself. Over this past week, I've been to more museums in a short space of time than I ever have before, and it's led me to realise what I like and don't like in a museum.

Curating an exhibition is a skill. Exactly the same group of artefacts can be arranged into something magical or something incredibly dull. The little white label by an object can conjure up the object in use with a few carefully chosen sentences, or a paragraph of waffle can sap away all interest in even the most exciting of artefacts.

For me, a museum is about telling a story. It's about joining the dots to lead you on a journey from things you know into things you didn't know. It's about putting the items in the collection into context and using them to tell a story and paint a picture and then allowing that picture to grow in the mind of the visitor.

The Imperial War Museum is a masterclass in how to curate exhibitions. Every gallery tells a story and gives you the facts to form pictures in your mind. Even in the Holocaust gallery, the story is told factually and without providing the emotional commentary which any lesser museum may have done. The gallery was so much more interesting - and powerful - because of this.

This contrasts with the slavery exhibits at the Museum of Docklands which labours the emotional point throughout. I don't need a museum label to tell me that a torture instrument for slaves is "horrific" and I don't need a picture of "happy black people" to make the point that salvery has been abolished and that's a good thing.

The rest of the Docklands Museum was pretty good though. I guess the local interest for me (there was even a picture of home in one of the displays!) made it all the more interesting, but even so, London's history as a port is something not really covered elsewhere.

Sometimes a museum can suffer from one or two standout pieces in the collection taking the attention away from everything else. Even the greatest of museums can suffer from this - witness the number of people who go to the Louvre only to stare blankly at the Mona Lisa for five minutes and then leave. The Courtauld collection at Somerset house has something of the same feel about it. There isn't anything of the renown of the Mona Lisa in the collection, but it's hard to escape the feeling that everyone is just heading for the Van Gogh at the end and rushing past the other works. Of course, you don't have to get caught up in that, but it can generate momentum which is hard to resist. A good curator can overcome that problem, juxtaposition of famous works in amongst less-famous but similar and comparable works can actually enhance the enjoyment of the famous piece - maybe putting it next to contemporaneous works could make you realise how the quality of the work has made that piece as famous as it is, for instance.

Of course, sometimes it's unavoidable. Just like there are some albums out there with 11 dull tracks and one belter. Sometimes you just have to skip past the bad tracks and find yourself only ever listening to the same one track.

The Hunterian museum doesn't really suffer from the "standout pieces" problem. In a relatively small space, the layout is fantastic. Hundreds and hundreds of superficially similar glass jars line the shelves, and make the place fascinating and inviting to anyone with a scientific mind. The layout is such that even after you've already looked at several hundred little glass jars, you are drawn to look at the next one. It's not for the squeamish, but it again sticks to the emotionally factual presentation which pricks ones interest rather than alienates by making the subject matter somehow taboo. Sure, a preserved foetus isn't a pleasant object in its own right - but without such objects, medical science wouldn't be where it is today.

But despite my quibbles with some museums (and they are quibbles, we didn't visit a single bad museum this week) I realised that I love museums. I love learning new things, and revisiting what I already know about other things. I love to have my knowledge challenged and even visiting a museum exhibition on a subject I know well can be fascinating as it fills some of the gaps in my knowledge and helps me to draw lines between things I didn't previously know were connected.

Many museums in the UK are free these days. That is, they are free to enter - they are far from free to run. So I would urge you to do as I do. If you've learned something, or enjoyed the collection then make a generous donation on the way out. It's a small price to pay to keep these great places alive and open.

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