Museums Review 2016

It has been two months since I last posted on this blog, which is too long! Since May I have been on so many research trips, study visits, conference adventures and explorations that I’ve been really trying not to distract myself for the last few weeks and actually get some writing done. I have been semi-successful, but my New Years Resolution will most definitely be: head down and write!

What I have managed to work on is my museum reviews. One big part of my thesis will be a museums section. I’ll be explaining why the most relevant ‘output’ for my research is the museum world, I’ll explore contemporary museum practice and I’ll be writing a review of some (not all!) of the 30-odd exhibitions I’ve seen over the last year.  I thought, as it seems like an appropriate end-of-year-y thing to do, that I’d very quickly outline my favourite exhibitions of the year, in the hope that some of you may be able to see the ones that are still running!


The hoard of a museum addict

The highlights for me, in terms of (what I see as) good museum practice balanced with my personal enjoyment of the experience, are:

The Fallen Woman – Foundling Museum, London

(Runs until January 3rd 2016)

This exhibition was moving, sensitive, simple and beautiful. But the reason I choose it here is because of the strong narrative that ran throughout the objects, labels and panels. In this small exhibition, every item on display had a clear and defined place within the story being told by curator Lynda Nead, who skillfully avoided repetition. I particularly loved the sound installation by musician and composer Steve Lewinson. The installation, which layers the whispered and desperate voices of ‘fallen women’ petitioning to have their children taken in by the Foundling Hospital, is more atmospheric than instructive, but it fits perfectly within the exhibition and compliments other objects on display. On the collaboration with Lewinson, Nead explains ‘I began talking to Steve about using the words of the women, as we found them on the petitions and forms, and treating them in a way that would almost feel like the spaces were being haunted by them. That the words would make the walls come alive.’

I left this exhibition feeling that she had achieved this goal – the words in both the sound installation and written on object labels did make the walls come alive – the stories felt real and visceral, an incredible example of sensitive, emotive and engaging object interpretation.


Fashion on the Ration – Imperial War Museum, London


I was always going to enjoy this exhibition. I LOVE the Imperial War Museum, I have a particular interest in Second World War fashion and I am writing a PhD thesis on fashion that is associated with conflict. I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail here, but here are the three things I most enjoyed about this exhibition:

  • The display of male and female military uniforms alongside each other. It was such a great and rare opportunity to see the Royal Navy uniform next to the WRENS counterpart, the Army next to the ATS and the Air Force next to the WAAF. And it made the unique nature of the Land Girl uniform (which had no male counterpart) even more obvious. Thank you IWM!
  • The inclusion of women’s letters and personal stories. Letters from one particular lady writing to her husband during the war popped up a few times, and it added a really personal narrative to the objects on display. I only wish I could find letters like this from the WW1 period! (She actually talks about dress, hurrah!)
  • It was a shame that there were not more patched, mended, darned and threadbare items on display, but aside from this the exhibition included a diverse array of objects and avoided the cliches. It made a clear differentiation between Utility Fashion, rationing and other issues that surround wartime fashion. I only wish I’d been allowed to take photos! (But understand why not, of course)

A Century of Style: Costume and Colour 1800-1899 – Kelvingrove, Glasgow

(Runs until February 14th 2016)

I saw this Century of Styleexhibition this week so it is fresh in my mind. I just want to mention it here for the incredible quality of the objects on display. Each and every object was conserved, mounted and presented to an incredibly high standard, they were flawless – and just highlighted the strength of this amazing collection. I hope it reinforces the fact that high quality costume displays do happen outside of London and that ‘regional’ collections have a huge amount to offer. It was so exciting to see some of this fantastic collection out on display, and we can only hope that Glasgow Life put on more costume exhibitions in the future!

(Also, hooray for the rotating displays! Genius – the best way to view huge 19th century frocks)

Lee Miller & Picasso – National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Lastly, I would like to mention this photography exhibition that I believe may tour in the future. DON’T miss it if it comes your way! I usually enjoy museum (object) exhibitions more than art (or photography – flat things) exhibitions just because that is where my interest lies. This is also to do with the interpretation methods that are appropriate to the two different spheres. However, the curator of this exhibition has done an incredible job in bringing these simple black and white photographs to life. Yes, they were blessed with some pretty strong subject matter – but the depth and warmth in the object labels was seriously impressive. My favourite label serves as a great example of this, it accompanies a photo of the young Anthony Penrose with Picasso at Farely Farmhouse (1950).

‘Miller recalled how Picasso delighted in the hoar frost, in the Constable like views of the South Downs and in whiskey and plum pudding. ‘Very English’, he declared, unaware that Miller had all but run out of food and was raiding her store of tinned Christmas goodies.’

This story  takes the viewer out of the white-walled gallery and transports them into another world; we get to see Picasso not as a world famous artist but through the eyes of a family that knew and loved him. It is memorable, though not factual, and contributes to the intimate atmosphere of the exhibition.

A List…

Just for the record, here is a boring and slightly jumbled list of the museums & temporary exhibitions I’ve seen over the last year / 18 months:

  1. V&A Shoes
  2. V&A Alexander McQueen
  3. V&A Disobedient Objects
  4. V&A Wedding Dresses
  5. Museum of London – Sherlock
  6. Museum of London – Pleasure Garden
  7. Jewish Museum – Weddings
  8. Museum of London Docklands – Christina Broom
  9. Foundling Museum – Fallen Woman
  10. Fashion & Textile Museum – knitting
  11. Design Museum – Women, Fashion, Power
  12. Museum of Transport – WW1- Goodbye Piccadilly
  13. Imperial War Museum – Fashion on the Ration
  14. IWM – WW1 Galleries (new)
  15. National Portrait Gallery – Grayson Perry
  16. National Portrait Gallery London – Women in WW1
  17. Kensington Palace – Fashion Rules
  18. Tate – Sonia Delauney
  19. Barbican – Artist as Collector
  20. National Museum of Scotland – Pringle
  21. NMS – Victorian Photography
  22. NMS – Games
  23. Aberdeen – Lady is a Vamp
  24. Museum of Edinburgh – Scars on the City
  25. National Library of Scotland – Behind the Lines
  26. Killerton House – The F Word
  27. Winchester Discovery Centre – The Trench Coat
  28. Overbecks, Salcome (National Trust) – WW1/nursing
  29. Jane Austen’s House, Chawton
  30. York Castle Museum – 1914
  31. Bath Fashion Museum – Georgians, etc.
  32. Ming: The Golden Empire, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
  33. Riverside Museum, Glasgow
  34. Picturing Conflict – Art of the First World War, City Art Centre, Edinburgh
  35. Lee Miller & Picasso – National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
  36. Century of Style – Kelvingrove, Glasgow

Here’s to many more museum visits in 2016 – Happy Christmas!


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