Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

A Walk with History

September 15th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Unless you have previous knowledge of the museum beforehand, the John Soane Museum will initially confuse you. Expecting to see another massive and imposing building, the Soane Museum is actually just an inconspicuous house located amidst the London city chaos. Without much of an introduction, I wandered inside holding my purse in a clear plastic bag—the reason for which I learned later on—immediately into Sir John Soane’s past. I wandered through the intricate maze of tall and narrow doorways and winding staircases, coming across only a small number of plaques describing Soane and his belongings. I gradually learned he was an English architect, remembered most for his remarkable skill and his design of the Bank of England.

John Soane’s house was incredible. The detail in the architecture was intricate and the colors and designs were nuanced and distinct. Besides the building itself, the objects it housed seemed for the most part entirely out of place. For example, a large open room, extending from a stone basement to a glass roof, exhibits a myriad of ancient Greek stone architectural pieces. Apparently the room is intended for students to wander through feeling as if in Greece while learning about the architecture. Although I appreciated the museum by the end of my personal tour, I could compare it to another museum I visited in Boston and did not enjoy it nearly as much.

Greek Architecture Exhibit, John Soane Museum

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts is similar to the John Soane Museum in that it’s a personal home that displays the past owner’s invaluable possessions. Isabella Gardner was not an architect like Soane, but rather a remarkable art collector, patron of the arts, and philanthropist. Unlike the Soane Museum, the Gardner Museum offered a tour as soon as the visitor entered—something vital when there’s an apparent lack of plaques, brochures, and audio guides. Furthermore, the organization and presentation of the pieces in the Gardner Museum was more effective. Instead of a disorganized jumble, Gardner’s rooms centralized the visitors’ focus on one main piece and designed the rest of the art in the room to reflect and elaborate on the piece’s expression. For example, one room displays a striking, passionate sort of painting, while other sculptures, drawings, plants, and the room’s decoration further emulate the painting’s dark, mysterious emotions.

Painting in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

In the end, I enjoyed the John Soane Museum as an exploration of one man’s architectural talent and creativity, the rare objects he collected, and his life in 18th and 19th century England. However, it became a challenge when I compared it to another somewhat similar museum that I much preferred over the Soane.

Tags: 2010 Mary · Museums

History Wins the Lottery

September 14th, 2009 · 2 Comments

A few days ago, Sarah and I finally decided to finally visit the John Soane Museum. Although I had been hearing quite a bit from people about the museum, it is definitely something to be experienced! The museum is a pack-rat’s dream, with each room crowded with so many artifacts and architectural pieces that it is hard to not accidentally graze something with your arm. Even so, the museum was quite sufficient at trying to display as much as they could, for clearly Soane liked to collect a lot of his favorite things.

One of the first things I noticed, being a museum person, was the general upkeep of the museum. About 3/4 of the objects I felt were free to wear and tear from not being under some sort of protection. The house, although it was, I felt, quite large for a home museum in London still could not sufficiently display all of the objects, and I am sure there are even more in storage. My questions were somewhat answered with a visit to the third floor.

On the third floor, it displayed an elaborate plan for future renovations and improvements on the museum. Many of the designs were to expand on the structure and create better ways to display the many, many objects in the museum. As I looked at these displays, I wondered how many of these historic buildings, like the Soane, receive funding. I know in America we have the National Trust for Historic Preservation that funds the upkeep of many a historic site. In London though, I had noticed many museums, historic and art based, being funded by the National Lottery.

I know for me, since I live in Pennsylvania, our lottery “benefits older Pennsylvanians”. The National Lottery here in England though, has an outlet called Good Causes where the money goes towards charitable causes, education, sports, the arts and heritage. For each the art and heritage causes, the Lottery distributed 16.67% of their funds. This was interesting to me because do I rarely see, at least in Pennsylvania, the lottery going towards museums. The National Lottery here in England has benefited museums and art galleries in past decade or so, through increased funding and allowing many of these places to administer free admission. Through both of these benefits of the National Lottery, museums and galleries have seen their attendances increase dramatically. An article called, Museums: after the Lottery boom showed that for example, at the V&A, it “saw attendances increase from 75,773 in November 2000 to 132,882 in November 2001.” This is incredible. From working and volunteering in many museums back at home, I know how many struggle with just attendance, let alone funding.

Now back to the John Soane Museum. Through the Heritage Lottery Fund program, the museum was awarded in 2007 a grant for improvements on the site. They were awarded £28,900 for project planning, education, exhibits, and conservation of the museum. The Soane Museum then waited to submit an application for a grant of £3.3 million for their Opening up the Soane project in March 2008. It has since become a £6 million project to “restore, refirbish, and improve” the Sir John Soane Museum. The main drive for these projects, besides creating a new and improved space, is allowing the museum to be more easily accessable to the disabled, and this is why they can receive much of their funding by claiming as such. According to the Soane Foundation’s website, this is all to be completed in 2012 (along with many other projects in London) for the 200th anniversary of the building at its site.

The National Lottery Good Causes foundation seems to benefit many local and national organizations, museums and galleries included. It has allowed for attendance to be increased through free admission at sites where that is a feat in itself. It has allowed for museums to receiving funding to make the improvements necessary for future generations to learn from and preserve it for them. At first I was skeptical of these places being funded by the National Lottery, but its benefits for all areas of local and national heritage, art and history cannot be beaten. I think this would be a great thing for America to adopt because I have seen one too many museums close in my area from lack of funding, attendance, and support.

Tags: Alli · Museums