When I say touring exhibitions I mean an exhibition that travels to different venues. Not going on a tour of exhibitions myself!
What makes a touring exhibition good?
For me its a strong theme so you know there is content relevant to your interests. Also the opportunity to see a show that you would normally have to travel a long way to see or simply not be able to get to.
If a touring exhibition has related objects from the host museum’s collection that’s another draw for me. A bit like get an unexpected treat!
A range of souvenirs is always a bonus. Admittedly I tend towards fridge magnets because they don’t take up much space. Having a selection of linked books, prints, cards and other items does make finding something easy.
A themed exhibition
An annual treat for myself and a friend is going to the International Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition in Bristol. Wildlife photography fans will know this tours around the country. Having this available in Bristol is much closer and cheaper to get to than in London.
The show is consistently good both in terms of quality of images and addressing issues affecting wildlife. The photos have enough information on shooting them to give a connection with the photographer and an insight into their thinking. The subject range is broad enough to include contentious issues like pollution, deforestation, poaching and local jobs in conflict with wildlife preservation.
And a fine range of souvenirs across the prices range too! Sadly our favourite shot wasn’t available as a fridge magnet. It was there as a framed print at a reasonable price but I managed to resist temptation.
Touring exhibition with local collections
This second example is also from Bristol and again it was easy to get to for us. We saw Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences because we both wanted to see this work and it was easy for us to get there. Having seen the Rake’s Progress at the John Soanes Museum in the past we were keen to see how it inspired Grayson Perry.
We found the tapestries both impressive and thought provoking. Seeing this subject addressed nearly 200 years after the original was interesting in itself. What added to the exhibition was a copy of prints of the orignal Rake’s Progress on display to refresh the memory or let visitors discover it for the first time. An addition that I really enjoyed was a display of David Hockney prints also inspired by the orignal.
The Hockney sequence added to the exhibition by showing a different modern approach to the subject. It also was a very personal approach unlike the original and unlike Perry’s depiction of the Rake.
From a museum point of view
When there are touring exhibitions where I work the common response is visitors appreciate something different on show. Also an exhibiton no usually associated with our collections is popular. An exmaple of such an exhbiton was Hiroshige from the Ashmolean museum. As described above as host venue some items from RAMM’s collection were included and it meant visitors saw items normally kept in store.
New artefacts for old?
Something I’m regularly asked when people find I work in a museum is “how do museums get new objects”?. The answer probably is that it varies. Where there’s a collecting policy the process is transparent but otherwise an enigma inside a mystery.
On visiting the National Army Museum in Stockholm in early September 2017 I saw their exhibition dedicated to explaining this mystery.
How museums get new objects – the exhibition
The Army Museum’s exhibition was in their temporary exhibition space on the ground floor. I liked the focus on objects for visitors to reflect on and practical examples. Also the emphasis on who made decisions.
A key part of the exhibition was an infographic showing the path an object follows to join the collection. Unfortunately this was in a shadow so whilst legible in the museum didn’t photograph well. This was supported by another display explaining who makes the decisions.
This display was very honest about the influence of individuals and groups on collecting policy. It stated that in the museum’s early days former soldiers were making the decisions but now it’s mainly highly educated middle class people.
An object that didn’t get in
An example of new objects was based around items used by an officer in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Most items were conserved ready to go into the collection. One item was not and this was the shipping crate the officer had lived in. Why was it rejected? Because it wasn’t the actual container the officer used but one the shipping company sent. So a good example of an object being rejected because of a lack of direct association with the museum’s purpose and lacking heritage authenticity.
Ship burial from Sutton Hoo redisplayed
The Sutton Hoo ship burial and the dark ages artefacts found there have fascinated many of us from first sight. The full face helmet alone is an amazing object in its own right. The other treasures create an impression of wealth not normally associated with the popular idea of the Anglo-Saxons in the dark ages.
The recent redisplay of the Sutton Hoo discoveries at the British Museum shows the objects familiar to frequent visitors in a new setting and with new interpretation. What I liked most about the redisplay was the context given to the finds. The display case is long and tall with the outline of a ship in white. The photo shows this is faint but helps remind visitors that the objects come from a ship grave. This is underlined by the simple labels showing whereabouts in the ship the objects were found.
Recreated objects and interpretation
A big change in this display is the number of modern recreations of objects displayed alongside the originals. I liked this approach because it helps the non-specialist understand what the original looked like and can help see how it was used. For example the modern versions of the cauldron and chain make it clear the size of the object and it’s use. Not least the length of the chain shows it was hung from a high support. I also liked the way the modern versions were clearly marked to avoid confusion.
Inevitably the modern helmet attracted most attention while I was in the gallery. Having it displayed by the original allows a compare and contrast the two. Plus it shows how much the Anglo-Saxons liked to create an impression with polished metal objects.
The reconstructed helmet has more detailed interpretation than I expected. It highlights the pagan horned dancing figures similar to other pagan depictions. It also points out the similarity to Roman cavalry tombstones that show a Roman (or auxiliary) riding down a barbarian.
The shield was a reconstruction to provide a display for the original shield fittings and this is essentially unchanged. It has a modern and an original sword below it. Seeing the modern sword in pristine condition helps the visitor imagine the impact visually and physically of this finely made weapons.
Sutton Hoo and the Anglo-Saxons
What does this splendid display tell us about the Anglo-Saxons and their world? It makes clear the wealth that an individual could command. From gold metalwork and red garnet fittings on the pouch cover to the workmanship of the helmet’s decorated panel and ridge it shows the love of bling and display. Identifying where objects come from gives an insight into the wider world of the time. Clear links between East Anglia and East Sweden are seen along with silver plate from the Mediterranean (more dark ages bling!).
The discovery is significant enough to feature in the name of Room 41 at the British Museum. Room 41 is now the Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100 gallery.