‘Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die’, Museum of London

You enter the exhibition through a bookcase and discover the many faces of Sherlock Holmes, from theatre, film and television. This is undoubtedly a suitable entrance to what is an in depth study not just of Holmes but also of London. A homage to both, it demonstrates that they are intimately entwined, both influencing and inspiring the other.

Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die (17 October 2014 – 12 April 2015, Museum of London) begins with screen after screen of clips from the different films and TV productions of Holmes. Here we reacquaint ourselves not just with Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, but also with Tom Baker, Christopher Plummer, Rupert Everett and Peter Cushing, not forgetting the most recent incarnations of Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. Across from these ever changing screens are film posters, English, Chinese, French, German and more. We are also introduced to London in 1903, so setting the scene firmly for the two main characters of this exhibition. As you walk through, the audio follows you, with sounds of Holmes’s voice and that of London.

We are then introduced to Conan Doyle, his history and influences including Edgar Allan Poe. The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), quite possibly the first modern detective story, was a clear inspiration. Nearby, The Strand Magazine is displayed with its ‘A Study in Scarlet’ cover (first and second printing). Sidney Paget’s beautiful drawings, of which only 27 survive out of 356, show the Holmes and Watson with whom we have become familiar.

London proper is then introduced. Maps from Victorian times to today show us the scenes and locations of Holmes’ world and how he travelled through it. Stunning albumen photos, etchings, aquatints, photogravure and lithograph prints showcase the London of Holmes, presenting the soft, misty allure of a London we associate with Victorian times. Paintings give further atmosphere, including one by Monet, Pont de Londres (Charing Cross Bridge, London), demonstrating how the industrial fog inspired him and other artists like Whistler.

It’s at this point that we get our one photo opportunity. Sandwiched between Monet’s painting and the ephemera that we associate with all aspects of Holmes’s life and work, is a narrow room. The end of this displays the key elements that have come to define Sherlock Holmes – the deerstalker, his pipe, a magnifying glass and, of course, the door of 221b Baker Street. While the door attracts some attention, it is the accoutrements that appeal, as they are placed in such a way that it is possible to appear as if you are wearing the hat, smoking the pipe and holding the magnifying glass in readiness to solve the crime from which the impossible has been eliminated and, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

The most densely populated room contains an open triangle of showcases. These house clothes from Cumberbatch’s Holmes, the famous deerstalker and cape, theatrical clothing, wigs, make up and more audio and visual clips from the various films and TV programmes. There is a cacophony of sound, but it is easy to pick out the different actors playing the role. Around the edges, we find out about phrenology, opium and cocaine. Forensic images are an important addition, which lend credibility to the character of Holmes. A cabinet contains not only shoes, but also their x-rays showing repairs and hidden objects. The exhibition would not be complete without Holmes’s pipes and the various kinds of tobacco that he was an expert on.

Holmes and Conan Doyle were modern men and we can see how they epitomised the fast moving societal changes taking place at the end of the Victorian and beginning of the Edwardian eras. The phone and telegraph are explored as being essential and we see different types of typewriters, not just demonstrating Holmes’s ability, but also the social changes taking place – that of women entering the work force. One of the most interesting objects is that of an automaton – the Psycho automaton, 1874. A wonderful object, it was made by John Neville Maskelyne (1839-1917) and shown in Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall. The setting evokes sorcery, but ultimately Holmes explains that the automaton works by logic.

If I have one main criticism of the exhibition, it is related to this room. On the one hand, I felt that the display worked really well, presenting a wealth of objects in a cabinet of curiosity (or possibly Victorian living room) style that gives insight into the character and the time in which he was set. This is Victorian London at its most vibrant and innovative, and a character at his most complex. The down side is that this is a room that can very quickly become crowded and a little claustrophobic. There are at least five screens showing clips from films and TV programmes, all on a loop, but all playing different clips at the same time. The result, while evocative of the complexity of the character and the different characterisations can be somewhat discordant, particularly when the room contains a large number of people, all of whom are discussing the exhibits. I recommend going when the exhibition is not so busy…

The exhibition concludes with not just the final problem but the assertion demonstrated in the strap line to the exhibition – Holmes is immortal, he may never have lived, but he will never die. We exit via the Richenbach Falls and the realisation that Holmes lives on.

After exiting the exhibition, you have the chance to indulge yourself with lots of Holmesian related memorabilia. Not only is there the catalogue (£5 off with ticket), but Holmes and London related books, games and jewellery, bags, bowler hats and dressing gowns. These latter are clearly aimed at the wealthy tourist, but there are many smaller objects, including the ubiquitous museum chocolate and teddy bears dressed as Holmes to buy as souvenirs. Tempted as I was by the leather bag, its £150 price tag was a little beyond me and I contented myself with a catalogue. Perfect for those foggy English days so reminiscent of Victorian London.

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‘Artist Textiles’, Fashion and Textile Museum, Bermondsey

One of my first opportunities to engage with textile design and printing was through school. There I studied the history, design and practice of producing textiles and fell in love with texture, pattern and the versatility that cloth offers. Artist Textiles (31 January – 18 May 2014) took me back to my school days and renewed my passion for fabric and design.

Split chronologically into sections, this exhibition explores not only the artists and designers who have produced the textiles, but also set them within an artistic and historical context. We see Picasso sitting down to a meal with his second wife wearing a dress, the pattern of which he has designed, and see how paintings can be developed into printed cloth.

Set within the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, one of the homes of the textile industry in the UK, this is a fitting setting for such an exhibition. It is not just an exhibition displaying objects, however, it also demonstrates the importance of production. Set up by Zandra Rhodes, and now part of Newham College, it has a history of working with young designers.

This is a sumptuously designed and developed exhibition. There are layers of meaning to be derived from the intersection of designs, fabrics and mannequins dressed in fabrics by artists who are usually known for their work on paper or canvas rather than free flowing fabric. It is accompanied by a detailed and authoritative catalogue, which is an appropriate accompaniment to the exhibition and one which is both coffee table book and useful text for design students. It does suffer from the inevitable though – it is impossible to do justice to three dimensional fabric designs in a two dimensional reproduction, however good the colour plates. The experience of the exhibition cannot translate into a book. These textiles need to be seen to fully appreciate them.

Book published!

My monograph Education, Value and Ethics in International Heritage: Learning to Respect has just been published by Ashgate. As with many things in life, it took a little longer than anticipated, but hopefully it is all the better for that.

This book discusses perceptions of values and ethics, authenticity and significance, and documents the historical, heritage and education context in North America, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, with a particular emphasis on Aotearoa New Zealand. I explore whether it is possible to learn respect for differing cultural perspectives through the undertaking of educational programmes, identifies various approaches that could complement the development of students and professionals in the cultural heritage and preservation sectors, and offers a means of actively engaging with cultural and professional values through a Taxonomy for Respecting Heritage and Values.

As well as these specific countries, I explore a range of communities, as you can see from the contents list:

Preface; Introduction; Concepts of engagement in Aotearoa New Zealand; Concepts of engagement in the wider context; Values and ethics from an international perspective; Defining values, exploring ethics; Authenticity and significance; Education and heritage; The intersection of museums and communities; Language and context for understanding; Communicating values: affective principles; Conclusions; Bibliography; Index.

You can download the full contents list, as well as the introduction and index from the Ashgate website.

And here’s what it looks like!

Image of book cover

Order your copy from Ashgate for 10% discount.

‘Victoriana: the Art of Revival’, Guildhall Art Gallery, London

Victoriana: the Art of Revival (7 September – 8 December 2013), at the Guildhall Art Gallery, starts with peacock feathers and ends with letterpress prints, both indicative of the Victorian age. This is a fascinating exhibition, which juxtaposes taxidermy with prints, installations and mechanical art with sonic guns and provides the opportunity for interactivity, not through digital means, but by projection from one floor to another. There is much fun to be had, but there is also a serious side. Grayson Perry explores the idea of a mentally ill Victorian farmer’s wife, who has lost her children. Perry stares out of the frame of the photo, challenging us to identify with her pain, yet we can still see that it is Perry that challenges us, rather than a mock Victorian image.

In Ligia Bouton’s work, William Morris, the nineteenth century socialist and pioneer for craft and a return to rural values and way of life, becomes ‘William Morris Man’, who is pitted against another nineteenth century designer, Owen Jones. They ‘do battle in a style that draws upon the recent surge in popularity of the graphic novel’. This work, as with many in the exhibition, plays with the intersection, and interconnection, between Victoriana and contemporary art and society.

Many of the displays present images which appear at first fun, but on closer examination, prove to contain disturbing elements. Miss Pokena in her ‘Trophy Chair’ gives us one such piece. Inspired by her native New Zealand, which allows her a fresh perspective on the ‘strange allure of England’, she presents what appears at first to be a comfortable armchair, but which displays at the back the entwined bodies of foxes. This work, together with Polly Morgan’s ‘Why do we Wait 3, 2006’ demonstrates that there is a renewal of interest in taxidermy. Indeed, according to the label, Morgan has been credited with its revival, particularly under a glass dome.

A thought provoking and beautifully produced set of photos is presented by Yinka Shonibare. Taking on the persona of Dorian Gray, but using Albert Lewin’s 1945 film, rather than the book by Oscar Wilde, we see how Shonibare is exploring popular culture, letting it lead us in a way similar to the graphic novel, through the story to the ultimate demise of Gray. The colour image in the centre, the only one amongst black and white images, is the most shocking, not least because of its isolation.

Many of the objects aim to comment not only on Victorian attitudes to women, children, etc. but also contemporary ones. Nick Knight demonstrates that women are just as constrained in their clothes, what society expects of them and how they should be seen, as their Victorian compatriots. Knight’s image uses Victorian clothes to illustrate how they are ‘representative of the disabling fashions worn by women’.

Tentacles, octopus and Cephalopods are as evident in this exhibition as in Steampunk literature. Yumiko Utsu’s ‘Octopus Portrait’ and Dan Hillier’s ‘Mother’ demonstrate how beauty can be subverted by tentacles. They play with the idea of a ‘dark underbelly of animalistic influences’, themes evident in much Victorian literature,

Mention must be made at this point of Herr Doktor, or Ian Crichton, without whom no Steampunk or Neo-Victorian exhibition would be complete. He is represented by two works, his ‘Space Helmet’ and his ‘Steam Pistol’. Both demonstrate the fun, and wit, of Steampunk. His Helmet is described as ‘stylish, comfortable, and fully adapted to hostile environments’ demonstrating that style need not be compromised wherever you are. If you are in a hostile environment, the Steam Pistol will prove handy, especially against un-earthly opponents’.

Paul St George, with his ‘Geistlich Tube’, connecting two floors of the exhibition, and his ‘Non-circular Gears’, together with Simon Venus’ ‘In Two Minds’, provide the interactive element. The opportunity to gaze into a tube in the hope of seeing others, or perhaps even a ghost, to turn gears, or push a button thus enabling a mechanical stage and a range of objects to move is too much for most people, young or old to resist. I certainly enjoyed watching other visitors approach the objects displaying fascination, hesitation and ultimately a childish enjoyment in seeing paper objects move within the tiers of a mechanical theatre.

Some of my favourite prints were by Otto von Beach. His ‘Victoriana Alphabet’ had many people, myself included, laughing out loud. One wall spells out, as you might see in a child’s alphabet book, the letters V,I,C,T,O,R,I,A,N,A, with accompanying images and what each letter stands for (V is for voluptuous automaton!). On the opposite wall, the rest of the alphabet is spelled out. These together with Stephen Kenny’s work, who not only only exhorts us to drink gin, but reminds us of a ubiquitous Victorian character, Spring-heel Jack, and who is at the forefront of letterpress revival, provides a fitting conclusion to this exhibition. It is wide ranging, thought provoking exhibition, which demonstrates both the fun and serious intent behind Neo-Victorianism and Steampunk in particular.

The exhibition is accompanied by a range of events, including regular tours. A further accompaniment was the Steampunk Symposium, held on Saturday 30 November and organised by Lisa Mullen of Birkbeck, University of London. I was delighted to present a paper on Steampunk identity and the event also included a talk by Anna Powell, entitled ‘Mixing the Planes in Hellboy’. This was followed by a viewing of the exhibition, a Q & A session between Ian Crichton, aka Herr Doktor, and Guildhall curator, Katty Pearce, a discussion of the exhibition and closing remarks.

At £7 (£5 concessions), this is an exhibition that is well worth the money, if you enjoy the zany, and contemporary art with a Victorian twist. It is accompanied by a book, which is both catalogue of the exhibition and assemblage of thought pieces on and around Victoriana (price £15). Edited by the exhibition curator, Sonia Solicari, as with the exhibition, it is witty but does not shy away from the big issues that the exhibition seeks to engage with.

Le Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris: Le Theatre des Automata

Le Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris contains a wonder: le Theatre des Automata. A combination of automata and musical boxes by craftsmen such as Jacques de Vaucanson, it not only screens a film which describes the underlying philosophy of producing the automata, but also shows the automata themselves working. In addition, several of the 2D images in the showcases are interactive in the sense that you can push a button and a film will start which is projected over the image. It shows how the image would, in fact, move. So, although the image is too fragile to keep operating, a film is projected over it, enabling the original to show through, demontrating how it would appear if working. This brings the object to life – it is no longer static. A number of other cases within this space also have buttons. When pressed, music plays. So, it is possible to listen to the sound of the musical box or automata without the object being damaged.

The staff are friendly and will offer to show the film when they recognise your interest in the subject. As you climb the stairs to this floor, there is a statue of Vaucanson, who not only crafted some of the automata in the Theatre, but also the silk looms and weaving looms in the upstairs galleries. I was relieved to find that, unlike Charles Babbage at the Science Museum, London, his brain was not on display…

Within the museum as a whole, there was also room for reflection and learning. Many seats offered the opportunity to pause; they were there to engage the visitor, not just to rest. They also facilitated conversation, as they were long, comfortable sofas. Other interactive stations offered not just ‘information’ but ‘savoir plus’: more learning. Each interactive station, be it a touch screen, or reading, was in metal, possibly brass, so fitting the industrial aesthetic of the space. There was plenty of wood, carved plaster work, and in the display of Foucault’s Pendulum, a chance to reflect in a converted church, complete with beautiful stained glass windows. Because of the fabric of the building, the temperature was comfortable, even on the hot day that we visited, and it was interesting from a conservation point of view to see how such a space conformed to conservation requirements.

This museum is an amazing space. It is possibly one of the most enjoyable museums I have ever been in. Although the objects are in showcases, they are more accessible than many in UK museums. This may be due to the building, the airiness, the light, the showcases or perhaps the amount of information. The labels typically give far more information than is usual in a UK museum, perhaps a cultural norm in France? This is not to say that the objects are not protected, there are blinds over the windows and in le Theatre des Automata, in particular, the light levels are very low. This does, though, give more of a sense of theatre, with each object occupying its own showcase, bringing it centre stage.

The museum is a showcase for technology, but the presentation is less that of a science museum, rather it is an arts and crafts museum. This, I think, is the key to understanding the difference in approach. For the French, I am guessing, technology, science, is an art. It is presented not as function, but as form, as shape, for what it can offer aesthetically as well as scientifically. The museum is a celebration of what technology can be, as well as what it can do.

After visiting the museum, we went to the Arts and Métiers Metro. I recommend you go to line 11. There you will see how the technology and its aesthetic that is celebrated in the museum, is articulated in the cladding of the walls and ceiling of this station. The look and feel is brass, with gears and wheels in the roof, and portholes along the walls. Within each porthole is an image, which seems to move. The French designers have combined a technological aesthetic with a functioning metro to produce a Steampunk world underground.

I also recommend the cafe across the street from the museum. Also called the Arts and Métiers, the food is excellent, the choice wide, the patisseries divine, and the staff friendly. Enjoy!

New Age of Discovery – Steampunk comes to Snibston Discovery Museum

On 10 March, after enjoying a day visiting Snibston Discovery Museum’s collections, we returned to experience the New Age of Discovery – Snibston Colliery in 2100, complete with steampunks, music, film and performance. The event was billed as ‘Snibston’s past becomes the key to a very different kind of future’.

Part of the Transform Snibston programme, which has involved artists in a major project, the New Age of Discovery (NAOD) started with drinks, the opportunity to ‘steampunk’ a pair of 3D glasses, and mingle with steampunks and guests. The staff were suitably attired in steampunk clothes and vied for attention with local steampunks attending the event. We were then led through a darkened museum, with displays draped with dustsheets, while our guide explained how Snibston had been put to sleep after oil had run out. That night, though, it would reawaken to a new age of coal and steam.

Our tour led us outside and into the theatre foyer where food, appropriate to the local area of Leicestershire (including Melton Mowbray Pork Pies!) awaited us. Suitably refreshed, we entered the theatre for a showing of the 3D steampunk silent movie, Clockwork, by ADEPT’s artists Steve Manthorp and Shanaz Gulzar. Accompanied by the sound of ticking clocks, the story unfolded of a sister who was kept a slave by her brother, but who found refuge in working on clocks and making mechanical objects. While the film immersed us in a steampunk and Victorian world, I wasn’t totally convinced of its place in this event, as it did not obviously link to Snibston and the collections there, as much as some of the other aspects of the evening. The following day we visited Bradford Industrial Museum to see the Steampunk exhibition there (more of this in another blog). A key part of the exhibition was this film, and I felt that it proved a more appropriate fit for that context.

On leaving the theatre, we were led outside to a soundscape of burning braziers and sixteen ornate Victorian looking trumpets through which we could hear oral histories from people who had worked at the colliery. This provided an evocative atmosphere in which to hear these stories, but it was difficult at times to see where the next sound station was. I felt that more light or signposting of each sound station would have helped.

The path then led to the old workings of the collieries themselves. Amazing structures lit up again the night sky, these provided the backdrop to the climax and, I felt, most successful part of the event. We were first treated to a stunning rendition of opera from Lili la Scala, who sang from the pit head gear. Then, steampunks processed up from there to a walkway. Accompanied by music, images of miners, the colliery, mine workings and steam engines were projected onto an enormous screen. Finally, Kit Cox announced the New Age of Discovery, fireworks exploded over the screen and, to everyone’s surprise (or at least most people’s!), a steam train broke through the screen and charged up the track towards the museum. This was followed by a steam engine, from which jumped steampunks carrying our limited edition gifts – carved pieces of coal, very fitting for a colliery!

The evening over, we walked back through the museum where another surprise awaited us. The beam engines that we had admired earlier in the day were demonstrating how smoothly – and quietly – they could produce power; a fitting end to our visit to the Age of Discovery. We then made our farewells to steam, steampunks and 2100 and returned to the 21st century with its oil and combustion engines.

‘Steampunk’, Bradford Industrial Museum

Steampunk (10 December 2011 – 6 May 2012) follows on from the success of Steampunk at the Museum of the History of Science (MHS) in Oxford, and the Greatest Steampunk Exhibition at Kew Bridge Steam Museum (KBSM, now London Museum of Water & Steam). Bradford has an exhibition that is a worthy successor. Put together by Wesley Perriman, the exhibition not only draws on the museum collections as influences, but includes dresses, artwork and guns, books, photographs, mobile cabinets of curiosity and the 3D Steampunk silent film, Clockwork, for which you could borrow 3D glasses to view.

The exhibition also places collection items and Steampunk material culture together in the gallery and in the showcases. While there may be concern that this juxtaposition, especially as all the labels were of the same style, could be confusing for visitors – what is ‘real’ and what is ‘Steampunk’ – I felt that this blending of objects and influences worked extremely well. With the other two exhibitions mentioned above, the links to science, steam and mechanical objects were there, but the blending was missing. At the MHS, the Steampunk objects had their own gallery that, though it was at the heart of the museum with other collection galleries around it, could be seen as a little isolated. At KBSM, the Steampunk objects were placed in and around the beam engines, but the influences were not so apparent. Bradford overcame this by juxtaposing Victorian dresses next to Steampunk dresses and a blunderbuss next to a sonic gun. This was a strongly curated exhibition that gave Steampunk a real sense of identity and placed it within a known history, while at the same time demonstrating that it was an alternative world with its own clothes, material culture, thoughts, ideas and values.