museums

Smarter Technology For A Dumber Mind

In the local Museum In The Park there is a small room marked “Collections”. In its centre is an antique, glass-topped, mahogany display cabinet with a stack of drawers below. The glass topped display features pages from nature notebooks: drawings and watercolours of plants, pressed ferns and flowers etc., but it is the closed drawers which interest me.

I love these small local museums: they are usually unattended and this invites me to nosy around and be tangibly involved with the exhibits, something you may not feel free to do in a national museum.

How many visitors open these drawers? Not many, I bet myself. Sliding the uppermost one open, it reveals a collection of small seashells in little boxes. The next one down has larger shells. I go for broke and pull on the bottom drawer thinking, who would bother crouching down to try this if they wouldn’t even bother with the top ones? It doesn’t yield to any amount of tugging. It’s not locked as there is no keyhole; the antique wood has expanded over the years and has wedged its drawer tight.

I try the one above which opens with difficulty. It contains prehistoric tools: an array of delicate looking needles, flint arrow heads and spear heads, scrapers, a great stone axe blade, and a huge, smooth pebble-like stone blunt at one end which looks as if it may have been a mallet or a hammer. There are several pieces of antler, horn and bone too but it’s not clear what these were for.

I stare down at the tools, imagining the minds of the people who made and used them, how their intelligence, perception and awareness compared to ours. It’s easy to believe they were inferior minds, naive, childlike in comparison to us but back home, looking into this, I find it might not be true.

There is an academic school of thought which hypothesises man’s intellectual capacity peaked millennia ago and has since been in decline. Even in early hominids with smaller brain cavities, analysis shows these brains to have been as complex as modern man’s.

What’s to blame for our intellectual decline? Well, ironically, probably tool making. The more advanced the technology we use, the less intelligent the user needs to be.

How to Approach an Exhibition

I suppose there are many ways to approach an exhibition and I can’t say whether any one is better or worse than another. All I can say is this one works for me. Galleries are a solace and a tonic. I’ll always go around, whether it’s a public gallery or a commercial one; whether it’s in a village hall, showing local amateurs’ work, or a national gallery in a capital city, I love it.

  • Take in the space as a whole. See how it has been arranged; whether it matters in which order you view individual pieces. Check the crowds; don’t follow the crowds.
  • Move around freely and let the exhibits speak to you personally. Don’t spend time with ones that don’t say anything immediately; these are probably there to speak to someone else. There will probably be a lot of works to get through and there should be at least one or two which will offer a good conversation at a glance.
  • Don’t spend a excessive time with the earliest conversations, there may be better ones ahead. Some conversations may seem worthwhile at first but appear superficial and trivial on reflection. Move along.
  • All shows require and deserve a second viewing, another turn around the exhibits. This is when you decide which work really deserves your undivided attention. Just one work maybe. Decide what it could be that attracts you to this one work more than all the others. Explore it from all sides or angles; put yourself in the picture, so to speak; imagine you are the artist, and the subject, if it is a human being; look for small details, clues to hidden perspectives.
  • Go for a coffee, lunch or a beer, and come back later, or on a different day, if practical, and strike up a relationship with your chosen piece. Own it, metaphorically speaking; relate to it. This is what it wants you to do. This is what art is about.

Do you like going around galleries, or museums – how do they work for you?

A Thing About Little Museums

If you ever find yourself in Gloucestershire and close to Stroud – pronounced with an “ow” and not as someone out-of-town recently said, with an “oo” – go and visit the Museum in the Park.

I’ve been living within easy reach of it for almost thirty years and have just paid it my first visit. I found out it was there only very recently, and the reason I went is because the Gloucestershire Printmakers’ Co-operative, in which I’ve been a lowly student on two past occasions, is staging a small exhibition.

It’s a nice gallery space. It looks purpose built being an extension to the main building, the former Stratford House, one time home of a family of local brewers. The original house, now passed into public ownership along with the surrounding grounds known as Stratford Park, contains a permanent museum. In essence, it is a museum of local history, though quite recent history, from late 1800s, I’d say, to the mid twentieth century.

Part of it is dedicated to the author, Laurie Lee, of Cider With Rosie fame. He was from the village of Slad, which is just up the road. Every so often, a passage from that autobiography is read out from an audio book. It’s an old voice and could possibly be the author himself. You can listen to it, as I did, sitting on a convenient chair placed in front of a grim, black cast iron kitchen stove surrounded by old fashioned kitchen paraphernalia, ornaments and books, as Laurie Lee’s mum might have done on a Winter’s evening, or the two contentious, old-aged spinsters, in their cottage next door.

The best thing for me about local museums, tucked away on the fringes of small towns, is – no crowds! Go into any one of London’s famous museums – of in any City, I imagine – and you’ll get what I mean. It doesn’t really matter to me what they’re exhibiting, the fact that you find yourself alone, wandering around the exhibits, allows for an intimate, almost illicit, sense of experience, like being a nosey parker or an intruder. I can’t resist touching and opening things I probably shouldn’t, whereas, in busier museums, I’d have to be content with just staring at stuff and making do with reading the informative plaques.

It was pissing down with rain, as it has been all June, and this stopped me exploring the Park. I think it’s a pity: when it was a family residence, they planted an arboretum which is now a small plantation of very grand trees, dominated by imposingly huge cedars and tall firs, and a curving path which leads down to a lake, originally a fish pond, presumably for supplying the house kitchens with fresh trout or carp.

The grounds look very well kept and also contain public tennis courts, lawn bowling greens and an indoor sports complex. So, Stratford Park – remember it if you’re ever down that way.

Well done, Stroud.


images (click to enlarge):

1 & 2; opposite corners of the gallery space.

3; view of outside courtyard from inside the entrance hall.

Stratford Park (wikipedia)

Museum in the Park