Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

London Taught Me to Skim Museums

September 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

I’m a slow museum goer.  I like to read all of the text as I go through, and when at an art museum, I tend to find a few paintings to focus on for, say fifteen minutes each, looking closely, and then backing up again, trying to discover the secret to the artist’s technique in the brushstrokes.  And so I’ve found the process of visiting museums in London frustrating for the same reason that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience: the collections at most of the museums I have visited here are just too expansive to see everything in a single afternoon.

The most extreme example is the Victoria and Albert Museum: each room is overwhelmingly full of objects, and almost every object is accompanied by a full paragraph of text.  So fairly early in my visit there, I abandoned trying to read everything and even walked through some rooms without stopping, in order to use my time to really get a sense of the full extent of the museum.  Not surprisingly, I really enjoyed the few exhibits were simpler, less cluttered, and more focused, such as the sequence of Peter Rabbit illustrations (which was a fun surprise).  However, among the clutter I also stumbled on some amazing contemporary pottery within the Japanese exhibit, simply because it happened to catch my eye.  In an entirely different part of the museum I saw some oil sketches by John Constable that looked surprisingly impressionist, compared to his typical, more realistic, complete landscape paintings.  Over all, I was able to see plenty that I found interesting, despite skipping items and full exhibits along the way.  However, the experience was somewhat stressful, since I knew that I had so little time to see so much.

In some of the art museums that showed mostly paintings I ended up needing to skim the collections as well.   On my first visit to the National Gallery, I ended up looking at only the rooms that featured impressionist and post impressionist paintings since I love looking at paintings by these particular artists, and therefore spent a lot of time in front of each individual painting.  (I discovered a new favorite Van Gogh painting, and a photo of it is attached to this post.)  When I went back about a week later to see the rest of the museum, I still had to skip a lot of paintings and captions in order to get through see a variety.  The skimming process inevitably led me to focus on finding the more famous paintings, such as Van Eyke’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait and Hogarth’s Marriage A La Mode series, and although these were not all that I looked at, I wish I could have spent time looking at more of what the museum had to offer.   It’s a strange trade off to be in a museum with a lot of amazing art, but to not get to see all of it because of the sheer quantity and quality throughout.  My experience in the Tate Britain was similar, though to a lesser extent: there was an entire wing devoted to Turner paintings, many of which were truly breathtaking to look at, and I found it difficult to decide how to ration my time in order to move on to other parts of the museum.

Van Gogh painting (photo from National Gallery website)

Turner Painting (from Tate website)

The Sir John Soane Museum was an exception because it was much smaller than the other museums that I visited and included very little text.  However, I had little access to information about what I was seeing, so I left feeling much less satisfied than when I left the larger museums.  I definitely prefer a museum having too much on display that I want to see, rather than not enough.  I still cannot figure out whether most museums in London are more text heavy than those in the States, or whether I just read very little of it here simply because there is so much to see.  Either way, I think that I could return to a few of the museums that I visited every day for a week, and still have more left to discover there.

Tags: 2010 Emily · Uncategorized

VA vs. John Soane Museum

September 24th, 2009 · 1 Comment

 Firstly, I realize that blogs have become old hat and that many (if not all of you) no longer read them. However, this has been sitting in my Gmail draft box for a dreadfully long time and if only out of annoyance for the Draft(1) icon, I am going to post it. I took to comparing the two last museums I went to. Are they comparable? Maybe not, but I thought they were trying to impart the same message to the viewer, which makes them comparable in my book.

What was it they were trying to show? I think as all museums do, they were trying to capture as much history as possible. But what is different about these two museums is the breathe. In a way it seems they tried to find the essence of beauty, and they tried to find it in many forms. But more importantly, they were both museums dedicated to the lives of those people who sought out that beauty and tried to make it accessible to us all.

Everyone seemed to have gotten hung up on the fashion section, and maybe it’s because I’m a guy who doesn’t really care for wedding dresses, but I didn’t think it was that offensive. The wedding dress is a big deal in English culture, and I imagine for Victoria and Albert it was a big deal too. Queen Victoria became severely depressed after her husband died, marriage was important in those days (a confusing thought in our modern society). But what gets me, is there were so many other fashion exhibits to look at; so many stranger ones. Namely the future fashion stuff, which I pray is not the future of fashion.  I particularly liked the stuff of The Porter Gallery though. I really like when artists play with the concepts of what art is. I’m not some high brow art snob but if I’m going to stare at something for ten minutes, I’d like it to challenge my perception, make me think, make me question. Telling-tales did just that. They also have a really good website, which i provided a hyperlink above to. I also really liked the Leighton Room with the paintings and sketches of gardens. How wonderful the English landscape is!

When you talk about the John Soane’s Museum, you must of course first talk about the building itself, for it is as much an item on display as any book or statue. The museum is mostly top-lit, with a similar feeling as another building he designed: the Bank of England. (the Bank of England isn’t worth going to just for the architecture) Other than that, however, the place feels like a labyrinth. There are folding panels, mirrors and strangely placed doors. It is also as eclectically put together as the objects it holds. You go from Roman to Gothic with a step through a doorway and then right back into neo-classical with another. The body of work itself is quite extraordinary. The thing that kept running through my head was that each of these pieces had been sought after, hand selected and cherished. The building was Soane’s soul materialized; he sunk every ounce of his being into collecting and creating. I wonder if with the same resources he had, I would have followed the same path. What dedication he had. And yet I felt almost saddened: the place was absolutely cluttered at some points, and I couldn’t help but feel like he was attempting to fill a void in his life with statues and paintings. When I asked a clerk about John Soane’s personal life I found it to be, indeed, quite depressing. John Soane died a widower and estranged from his only surviving son. So at the end of both the museums we are left with the why. Why did each of these two museums begin to tell a narrative, and why are they the way they are now? For Victoria and Albert, I think they were trying to bring beauty to the masses. This seems to go along with other projects they did including welfare programs and The Great Exhibition. On the other hand, I look at Soane’s collection, and I see loneliness. With his death he handed over everything he had ever worked to collect, almost as an attempt for people to remember him.

Tags: Andrew R · Museums

John Soane is my Homeboy

September 14th, 2009 · No Comments

In this wonderful blog post, I think I shall convey my experiences at the John Soane Museum. Essentially this museum was founded by Sir John Soane who turned his home into an area in which artists and art lovers alike could come in and appreciate his collection of antiquities.

The overall effect was fairly awesome because this museum has such a variety of artwork, including roman, medieval, neo-classical, and Egyptian works of art. There were some really beautiful statues, pieces of stained glass, paintings, and various other ancient artworks. I also noticed that one of his more famous collections is from ancient Egypt…including a sarcophagus? It’s amazing to me what money can buy if you have enough of it.

Anyways– I just visited the website to get some more background on John Soane himself but there is not an exorbitant amount of detail on his life. They do mention, however, that he was a distinguished architect who designed his own house so that it may become “a museum to which ‘amateurs and students’ should have access”. He left his collection and house to the nation in1837 because after his wife died in 1815 he never remarried and decided to establish the house as a museum.

The museum is architecturally beautiful, filled with illusions and surprises everywhere. I guess my favorite thing about this particular museum was that John Soane had made an effort to share historic art with others, so that no matter one’s circumstance he or she could lay their eyes on ancient relics. This was the one really redeeming quality to this particular museum. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the actual art that was involved but to me, the most important part was that John Soane wanted everyone to benefit from his collection. Maybe by the time I got around to actually visiting it, I was pretty tired of museums in general. Room 26 informed me that they had seen so many museums recently that Jeyla woke up and asked both Anya and Audrey if they were in a museum. Despite the fact that this is a hilarious story and I laugh every time I think about it, I think the moral of what I’m trying to say is that we have visited so many museums that this particular one really didn’t stand out for me, as say, the Tate Modern. Overall, I appreciated the experience but wouldn’t revisit it. On the Brightside for those of you who loved it I think the website as an interactive tour you can take whenever your little heart desires! 🙂

Tags: Maddie · Museums

My future home.

September 12th, 2009 · 1 Comment

   I have to say I was pretty excited when I heard that Sir John Soane’s Museum is filled with THINGS. Not only THINGS, but precious antiquities and works of art. Little did I know that these antiquities would include Images from the Past: Rome in the Photography of Peter Paul Mackey, a wooden mummy case, a Chinese printed scroll dated 1711, and Italian sculptures right in one’s backyard in Central London. Upon entering the actual museum, I thought “This is what my future home will probably look like.” Full of things that no one else would understand for why they are kept in a house but John Soane had a clear mission. To collect items that sparked his interest, his passion, items that would be questioned by others not only during his lifetime but centuries later. That would explain his construction choices, the placement of certain objects, the lighting, the different feel of each room and exhibition. All of these choices have made for a great museum.

   The tour guide at the door was not too happy when a couple of us acknowledged the fact that all we knew about Sir John is that he was an influential architect during the 18th Century. All he told us was to watch out for Sir John’s design of the windows, as how he intended for natural light to be used. With the words from the tour guide in mind: “Whether or not you will like the museum, you will not be able to deny that this is a special place” I proceeded to the living room, where Sir John actually did his “living” considering that this is the only room of the house that looked somewhat cozy. Observing his library filled with books of highest rarity, I knew I was in for a treat, and was going to find something that I was not able to in the rest of the museums seen in London. 

   The lighting of the constructed house was truly magical. Being a neo-classical architect upon constructing the museum in 1808-09 Soane used primary top lighting while including stained glass. After doing more research, the lighting and the architecture of Soane’s house seemed to provide toplit spaces and in miniature form an idea of the lighting contrived by Soane himself for the toplit banking halls at the Bank of England. Another aspect of the museum that I found fascinating was the room that holds all of the paintings collected by Soane throughout time. During the 1820’s and 1830’s, Soane collected works by contemporary artists, many whom were specially commissioned in order to encourage continuous painting by the students. Upon entering the room, one is under the impression that there is only one layer of paintings that are showcased in the room; however, upon a twist of a knob by a museum employee revealed layers and layers of art. As in a fairy-tale, Richard Westall’s Milton Dictating to His Daughters, Sir Joshua Reynolds’ The Snake in the Grass and Sir John Soane’s own sketches of Bank of London, Buckingham House,  Cambridge buildings were all in front of me. As I moved from room to room, I could not believe the riches that Sir John was able to collect and keep within his house.

   Questioning how he was able to store Roman sculptures made from stone and marble in his back yard, I left thinking that Sir John was one talented architect who had a major influence on the city of London but also someone who had major appreciation for art in general. His collection definitely required major monetary contributions which a person like myself will probably not be able to have  as a collectible in “my future home.” However, I do love the fact that the house is being used for the purposes that he set out for. It is a museum, a structure that allows students as well as any other individuals wishing to stroll through this house, to observe what this one man could find and collect.

Tags: Jeyla · Museums

Centuries of History in Every Step

September 6th, 2009 · No Comments

I try not to be biased against a museum’s collection because of its particular layout, especially one as restricted as Sir John Soane’s, but I feel that Mr. Soane’s museum was just too prohibitively small to have the kind of impression that he himself wanted it to. The stated purpose of John Soane (an architect by trade) turning his home into a museum was to “preserve [his] house and collection for the benefit of ‘amateurs and students’ in architecture, painting and sculpture.” Rather than gain any further concrete knowledge of these subjects at the Soane, I felt cluttered by what just instinctively felt like cartoonish opulence.

The signage was so sparse that I learned about one in ten of the individual objects rather than collections as a whole and how they relate to Soane or his areas of expertise. I doubt an audio tour would have even been able to cover much of the collection, either. I did get a sense of the importance of Mr. Soane’s work itself, but even this part of the museum consisted of many of his drawings gave me no sense of the arc of his career or his greater role in architecture. As I addressed in my V&A post, an eclectic collection is not enough to doom a museum to failure, but the Soane just fails to create any concrete impression on its guest besides the feeling of being overwhelmed by amazing and historic things.

Rowing graffiti at Corpus Christi College

Rowing graffiti at Corpus Christi College

Oxford is overwhelming in a much better way, if that makes any sense. I won’t speak for the group that did not have a good guide, but I think I got as good a sense of the past and present at Oxford (which are pretty much the same) as one can get when students and faculty are not there. I was glad at first to not be going to Oxford when classes were in session (so as not to be a gawking tourist), but now I wish I’d been able to see Oxfordians (Oxforders? There’s probably a much cooler name than those that us outsiders aren’t supposed to know) interact with the place. Don’t get me wrong, I was delighted to admire the buildings on their own (particularly the dining halls, which are even more stunning than in movies like Chariots of Fire [actually I think that’s at Cambridge]), but going when the University was entirely empty almost made it seem like a museum made from an abandoned University rather than one of the current greatest academic institutions in the world.

The Dining Hall at Oriel College

The Dining Hall at Oriel College

All of this will help me decide when to go to Cambridge, as will my desire to stay away from tourists there for the shopping. Although I walked around and saw plenty of the University before the tour, I didn’t really believe I was in Oxford until I entered that quad at Lincoln College and felt shut off from the street performers, KFCs and the like. I wonder how the sheer volume of tourists affects students’ ability to have a truly authentic Oxford experience like their predecessors (Brandon asked something like this, but I think our guide was confused). Similarly, I wonder if the cache of living in Oxford has driven housing prices so high that many of those who work at the University must live farther away. All things to explore when I make another pilgrimage one day.

Tags: Aidan

Off the Beaten Track

September 5th, 2009 · No Comments


Sir John Soane, R.A.

Yesterday afternoon we decided to walk to the Sir John Soane Museum rather than taking the tube. It was only a few blocks past the British Museum and I was able to see more of the Bloomsbury neighborhood. When we arrived at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it was easy to spot. First of all, there was a queue of people outside the gates and second, who else would have caryatids on the façade of their house but a classics-loving architect? While I appreciated the concept of the museum, (Sir John wanted to leave his home as a showcase for his antiquities and works of art) I thought it was SO crowded with his artifacts that I could barely focus on the actual architecture of the house. It was like walking into an “Antiques Roadshow” dream house. Ironically, my two favorite rooms were the ones that contained the least amount of classical antiquities, the library and the upstairs sitting room. I loved looking through his books and his paintings (the Turner on the second floor is exquisite!) because I felt that was a better way to try and gage what kind of man Sir John was. You can tell a lot about a person by what he/she reads. I loved the yellow sitting room because it was whimsical and light in the midst of all the dark wood and ancient Greek artifacts. The stained glass and the bright saffron-colored walls provided a nice contrast against the rest of the museum/house. I imagine that Sir John’s wife had a hand in decorating this area (although I can’t be sure) and he left it this way after she passed away. I only wish that there had been some sort of guide that I could have used to navigate through the house or a curator I could have talked to. Obviously, Sir John loved classical sculpture and architecture, and his collection is truly impressive, but I would have liked to see more of the floor plan. Also, I wonder what Soane’s sons could have done to persuade him to even turn the home into a museum. On the homepage all it says is he was “deeply disappointed by the conduct of his two sons.” Any thoughts on that? I really enjoy exploring the places where people lived. It’s fascinating to me… What were they like? What was their daily schedule? What room did they spend the most time in? To any future visitors, make sure you venture down into the basement aka “the crypt” to check out the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I. This is definitely a non-conventional museum. To be perfectly honest, what it lacked in curatorial flair, it made up for in dedication to preservation. The Sir John Soane museum was a welcome change from the halls of slick marble and crowds of tourists that have been a staple of the larger institutions. Sometimes it’s the places off the beaten track that make the biggest impression. While this museum was not my favorite attraction of London, It does showcase the importance of exploring the smaller, less popular areas. Next stop—Chancery Lane!

Tags: Grace · Museums · Uncategorized

So Soane So Soon

September 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment

After stepping off the Holborn tube stop, we followed the signs to the Sir John Museum and almost passed it on the street. It fits in so well with its neighboring houses that we nearly passed it. The only difference between the museum and the neighboring homes were two signs, one by the door and one on the gate. It’s set in a picturesque neighborhood across from Lincoln Inn Fields. The museum is a monument to Sir John, a premier British architect, from Sir John, a premier British architect. Sir John decided that instead of leaving his home and belongings to his children, he would create a museum that would house his eclectic collection of sculptures, paintings, and tchockes. While interesting and brief, the museum was almost confusing in layout and design of exhibitions. We understand that the layout is based on the three houses that he combined to create his home, but the exhibitions seemed to be crammed into whatever corner they might fit. Example, large stone sculptures over two stories tall in a hole in the ground floor to the basement. It was just a bit confusing trying to understand the collections left by Sir John, while at the same time being surprised by how the exhibitions were presented. Many times, we found ourselves considering how the exhibition fit into a particular room instead of how that part of the collection reflected on Sir John. Also the museum wasn’t so much a reflection on Sir John’s work rather than a convenient way to showcase his eccentricities in the form of artifacts from places other than Britain. The collections themselves were not very well presented and there was very little in the way of an explanation. The only guide was a 2 quid pamphlet offered at the main door; unfortunately we are cheap college students, so we went without the pamphlet to find our own path. Normally forging your own path in a museum is enjoyable, but within such a small and poorly laid out museum it was more of a hardship than a joy. We enjoyed the architecture of the house and that a piece of such beautiful architecture and love is so well maintained and that it was so beautifully repaired after sustaining enemy fire in 1941. However, except for its brevity, it just wasn’t the museum for us.

Tags: Kimberly · Mara · Uncategorized

Two of These Things are Not Like the Others

September 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment

It would be easy to provide a thoughtful, all-encompassing understanding of museums in London. I have tried to give some idea of the sprawling elegance of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, the comparative edge provided by the Tate Modern, and the gaping expanse filled by the British Museum. All inspire and churn the mind (or stomach) in different ways. Yet it would be foolhardy to say you can provide an “easy” nor “all-encompassing” understanding of museums in London (not that anyone has, necessarily). A double-threat stands in your way—The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

I walked away from both of these buildings baffled. It took much effort not to dismiss the V&A as immediately nonsensical, so I settled on “eclectic” as the best way to describe it. The V&A has been described in previous posts as an enjoyable hodgepodge of items without ties to anything distinctly British and breaking from any sort of natural organization. I agree with these perceptions of the museum, though it did, admittedly, take some time for me to reach this conclusion. I enjoyed the individual displays, but I got caught up with the confusing flow of the individual displays and the building as a whole. The display dedicated to Japan, for instance, did not contain a natural progression of Japanese art; a piece of art from the 21st century rested in the same case as centuries-old clothing. How does this make sense? Is the purpose to jolt the accepted model for museums? I have asked others and myself these questions and have come to appreciate the fresh perspective held by the V&A. It purposefully provides a jolt, but it takes varying amounts of time to recover, reflect, and, ultimately, revisit.

That in mind, I have yet to recover from the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

The history of the museum gives some indication of what to expect from the famed architect Sir John Soane and his conversion of his home into a museum in the 19th century. The collection was impressive in size and range – sculptures, paintings, books, furniture, pottery, figurines, etc. Once again, I appreciated the attention paid to detail in the cataloguing and presentation of the items, but I got caught up with the following questions: Why is this here? Why is this important? Who would benefit from this? I did not learn very much from the museum. (This does not include my sudden, pressing need to redefine my understanding of the word “museum”.) Granted, this may have been a result of the ‘jolt’ provided by walls lined with statues and other artifacts with little to no descriptors. Accustomed to the museum model that gave you some indication of what you viewed, I never took the initiative to ask more about the items lining every square inch of the walls. (I should mention here that the V&A did maintain this model.)

So, I try to assign a new word to describe this outlier of sorts. ‘Eclectic’ cannot apply to this museum, for a common theme of antiquity and classicism prevailed despite the range of the items. ‘Nonsensical’ does not apply either, for Soane had a set purpose in designing the museum for students (the education portion of the museum continues to this day).

For now, I will settle on ‘unusual’ and ‘out of place’ as ways to show Soane’s Museum as an outlier that expands the range of museums in London. The V&A did fall into this category when taken at face value. Perhaps I will come to the same conclusions when reflecting on Soane’s Museum.

Moreover, I hope to come to some conclusions about what each museum has to say about one’s British identity/identity in London, whether or not that is the museum’s immediate goal. This is a question that I have seen in previous posts but I have not been able to answer. I welcome your thoughts on either of these museums or your ideas on the role played by museums in shaping identity (if you’ve begun to formulate them…I cannot get my head around it just yet).

Tags: Brandon