Museums far from the madding crowd

Few cities in the world do museums in quite the way London does. Its most famous examples – The British Museum, the Natural History Museum and so on – are among the city’s major tourist attractions. But it is possible to enjoy a different flavour of London by visiting its legion minor museums, which seem to exist solely as a means of expressing how peculiar Britons and their interests can be.

Many of these museums require, shall we say, a very keen interest in the subject matter; while others are, as Samuel Johnson said of the Giant’s Causeway, ‘worth seeing … but not worth going to see’.

However, the following five are among the few that are worth a visit.

Foundling Museum                                                      

Located in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, the Foundling Museum (foundlingmuseum.org.uk) is built on the site of the Foundling Hospital – the world’s first children’s charity and its first public art gallery.

The Hospital was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. It had taken him 17 years to raise the funds.

The artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel helped Coram by making the Hospital one of London’s most fashionable venues. Handel held annual benefit concerts there while Hogarth encouraged the leading artists of the day to donate work. These paintings are still on display in the Museum’s charming 18th-century interiors reconstructed from the original building.

Poverty, widowhood, desertion by the child’s father and the shame of illegitimacy were common reasons why women faced the Sophie’s choice of keeping their babies and subjecting them to a life of poverty, or leaving them with the Hospital, which offered the child a better life. On opening, the Hospital was overwhelmed by demand and, to cope with the numbers, was forced to use a simple lottery system.

On admission, names were changed to protect mother and child, but it was possible for a mother to reclaim her child using a token that matched the one she’d already provided. Some of these are on heart-breaking display in the Museum’s small but fascinating permanent exhibition. They include personalised fabric, coins, playing cards, jewellery and medals.

By the time the Foundling Hospital closed in 1954, about 25,000 babies and children had passed through its doors.

Dickens Museum

Dickens writing Desk

A short walk from the Foundling Hospital, is the Dickens Museum (dickensmuseum.com), located in a Georgian townhouse at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury. Then in his mid-twenties, Dickens moved there with his wife Catherine, Charles Jr (the first of their ten children) and Catherine’s sister Mary Hogarth who died in the house a few weeks later. Her death affected Dickens deeply and had a morbid influence on his subsequent writing.

Dickens rented the house from 1837 to 1839, just as his fame was peaking. It was at 48 Doughty Street that he finished the Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The museum is exquisitely curated and very evocative. Many of the objects were owned by Dickens himself (such as his desk and chair, and shaving gear).

Whether you’re interested in Dickens or not you would have to be among the living dead not to find the museum captivating, and it is within striking distance of the British Museum and the rest of what has been dubbed Museum Mile (museum-mile.org.uk).

Guards Museum

Much smaller than the Army Museum in Chelsea and certainly the Imperial War Museum in Southwark, the Guards Museum (theguardsmuseum.com) is ideal for someone whose interest in military matters is low to moderate and who happens to be in the area – that is, Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace. There is no faulting its location.

The museum is devoted solely to the British Army’s five Guards regiments – the Coldstream, Grenadier, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards – who form most of the Queen’s Household Division. When you watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, it is these guys who are doing the changing.

This compact museum is well laid out and consistently interesting, covering as it does all 360 years of the Guards’ existence. As such it provides a pocket history of the British Army. Objects that captured my attention included a packet of now crumbling chocolate distributed by Queen Victoria to all British soldiers during the Boer War, and an assault rifle smashed to pieces by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Old Operating Theatre

There are dozens of medicine-related museums in London (see www.medicalmuseums.org) but probably the best example is the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, which more than any other museum I’ve been to, benefits from its unique setting.

The museum is housed at the top of a spiral stone staircase in the garret of a deconsecrated church near London Bridge. The church was built in 1703, its garret specifically intended to store herbs for the apothecary of St Thomas’s Hospital.

In 1822, an operating theatre was installed in one half of the garret. The theatre is the oldest surviving in Europe, and was built in the attic because it adjoined the hospital’s women’s ward, and because it was possible to create a large overhead skylight to aid the surgeons in their work.

For the 40 years it was in use, none of the operations performed there involved anaesthetic beyond alcohol or maybe opium, which is why it was separated from the ward by a soundproof wall. Tragically, antiseptic was not used either – Sir Joseph Lister introduced such procedures to the medical world in 1865, three years after the operating theatre closed. The mortality rate was horrendous.

The operating table, which remains in situ, is made of wood. The majority of cases were amputations, and in the absence of anaesthetics surgeons focused on speed. A skilled surgeon could remove a limb in less than a minute.

The other half of the garret contains a fascinating if macabre display including surgical instruments such as amputation saws, as well as leech jars and scarification equipment. The place smells pleasantly of carbolic, which is on display but was never used at the time. The illustrations of people being held down while their limbs are sawn off adds to the atmosphere and the immense gratitude you feel for having been born 150 years after the theatre was closed.

Staff talks bring the innocuous wood-panelled space of the operating theatre to gruesome life so it’s worth timing your visit to coincide with one – check the website (thegarret.org.uk) for details.

Anaesthesia Museum

In a similar vein, so to speak, is the Anaesthesia Museum, which is housed in the basement of the Association of Anaesthetists (www.aagbi.org) in Marylebone. Though the size of a modest kitchen, it has more than 4000 objects, some of them dating from 1774, and many of them available for inspection in drawers with labels such as ‘Endotracheal tubes’, ‘Laryngeal masks’, ‘mouthgags’, and ‘tongue forceps’.

It is a well-curated museum permeated with what might be the faint smell of anaesthetic. That said, it is more the story of anaesthesia than the museum itself that captured my imagination. For instance, the first anaesthetics were ether (1846), chloroform (1847) and nitrous oxide (1868). None of them were ideal. Ether is highly flammable, chloroform’s possible side effects include death, and nitrous oxide wears off too quickly.

Other obscure London museums …

The following museums might also tempt you, though bear in mind their opening hours can be as eccentric as their contents – check their websites for details.

  • The Optical Museum near Trafalgar Square has a collection of 18,000 spectacles and vision aids including 18th- and 19th-century spy glasses and telescopes, eye baths, and models of diseased eyes.
  • The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill offers 12,000 items, mostly comprising food packets from the last century or so.
  • The Twinings Museum, opposite the Old Bailey on the Strand, is more a small shop than a museum, though it was on these premises in 1706 that the tea company was founded.
  • The Dental Museum in Marylebone is about the size of a dental surgery, and provides a disturbing insight into life before dentists were properly trained and equipped.
  • Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich is necessarily large given the sometimes enormous exhibits on display. An interest in artillery is a prerequisite.
  • If you enjoyed the Dickens Museum, you might also want to visit Dr Johnson’s House near Fleet Street, or Benjamin Franklin’s House near Charing Cross, or Keats’s House in Hampstead.
  • The Garden Museum in Lambeth has a small collection of old gardening tools, including eccentricities such as a glass cucumber-straightener and a walking stick with inbuilt pruning saw for gentlemen gardeners.
  • The Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell offers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.
  • The Musical Museum in Brentford is devoted purely to self-playing instruments. An excellent place to learn the difference between the orchestrion and the orchestrelle.
  • The Chartered Insurance Institute Museum in the City of London is concerned mainly with fire insurance and firefighting.
  • The Wimbledon Windmill Museum details the history of the Wimbledon Windmill (in which it is located) and windmills generally. Ideal for windmill enthusiasts.
  • The London Sewing Machine Museum in Balham covers the history of both domestic and industrial sewing machines.
  • Greenwich’s Fan Museum claims to be the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to handheld fans, which comes as absolutely no surprise. If you find yourself there trying to admire its 3500 antique fans, it is possible that you’ve become bored with London, and therefore with life.

 

Conan Elphicke

 

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Anthology: Art & Music

The seasons have long inspired artists across all disciplines, both singularly and as a complete cyclic whole. Here is a representation of some of those sets from visual artists and composers around the world and from the Renaissance period through to the Twentieth Century.

 

Giuseppe Arcimboldo
(1526-1593) Italian

Arcimboldo’s portraits are among today’s most recognisable Mannerist paintings, particularly his portrayal of the Four Seasons, two of which are on display in the Louvre. Mannerism was an artistic movement that straddled the Renaissance and Baroque periods and focused on the connection between humans and nature.

“Arcimboldo also tried to show his appreciation of nature through his portraits. In The Spring, the human portrait was composed of only various spring flowers and plants. From the hat to the neck, every part of the portrait, even the lips and nose, was composed of flowers, while the body was composed of plants. On the other hand, in The Winter, the human was composed mostly of roots of trees. Some leaves from evergreen trees and the branches of other trees became hair, while a straw mat became the costume of the human portrait.” (from Wikipedia)

 

Nicolas Poussin
(1594-1665) Italian

Painted only 100 years after Arcimboldo’s portraits, between 1660 and 1664, Poussin’s series portrays the seasons through allegorical landscapes, focusing on the grandeur of nature and it’s power over man rather than the Mannerist depiction of intimate connection. Commissioned for the Duc de Richelieu, the nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, Poussin’s series symbolises the seasons through Old Testament episodes.

 

Antonio Vivaldi
(1678-1741) Italian

Composed a half-century after Poussin’s series, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni) are arguably the most recognisable pieces of Art music in the world today. The suite is a set of four violin concertos, each representing a sonnet describing one of the four seasons. Firmly Baroque in style, the concertos are balanced, evocative and virtuosic.

 

Astor Piazzolla 

(1921-1992) Argentinian

Contrasting in style to Vivaldi’s concertos, Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, also known as the The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, is a modern chamber music suite representing the season’s in Piazzolla’s native Argentina. Composed in the twentieth century, the suite is a set of four tango compositions scored for Piazzolla’s quintet of violin (viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón.

Elise Janes

See the Anthology of Poetry.

Kiss & Cry

Guest contributor Frances Chapman reviews Kiss & Cry, a live-art performance from the Sydney Festival that pushes the boundaries of staged artistic work.

1200x627_SF15_Kiss&Cry

Kiss & Cry is a sweeping cinematic romance with a twist: its stars are a duo of dexterous, dancing hands, moving with grace and precision onscreen through a series of miniature landscapes. Shot and projected onscreen simultaneously, a sensual small-scale ballet comes to life before your eyes.

From prize-winning filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael and choreographer Michèle Anne De Mey, a founding member of Rosas dance company, this story of forgotten love, told from a beautiful tiny world, has charmed audiences of all ages.

A moving love story – and a showcase for some seriously inspired handiwork – Kiss & Cryis a gorgeous intertwining of film and dance, as nimble of finger as it is nimble of imagination.

– from the Sydney Festival

It is unusual to see a truly original piece of theatre. Live audio visual hook-ups, meta “re-imaginings”, a guy painted red and shouting grandly into the abyss – we’ve seen it all. But Kiss and Cry, the darling of this year’s Sydney Festival, is truly something new.

Part dance piece, part movie, part small-scale puppet show, Belgium’s Charleroi Danses’ Kiss and Cry is hard to categorise. Choreographed by Michele Anne de Mey, of the Rosas dance company, and co-directed by filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael, Kiss and Cry is a simple and meditative love story. Looking back over her life, an old woman waits at a station and remembers her five great loves: the first, so brief, a boy in a train carriage when she was twelve, right up to the humdrum long relationship of her late adulthood.

Carriageworks’ Bay 17 is transformed into a movie studio, complete with miniature sets and an array of cameras capturing a range of creative angles. The story is told through poetic pre-recorded narration from British actor Tony Regbo, whose Jude Law-esque enunciation lends a whimsical tone, and brought to life by two hands (one de May’s, the other of dancer Gregory Grosjean), which dance together and apart, their small intimacies projected onto a large screen. A tiny ballet unfolds, the camerawork seamlessly capturing the precision of the dancers’ hands.

15305388158_ca106ac98b_bThere is plenty to watch: the dancers, the simultaneous film onscreen, and the backstage crew who comprise an ensemble themselves as they go about creating visual effects: blowing cigarette smoke across a dancefloor, moving dolls with great delicacy, working in unison to bring the finished product to the screen above. This is a theatre piece which shows the great beauty in the process of making art, as well as in the art itself.

Kiss and Cry takes our most used appendages, the taken-for-granted, humble hands, and projects them, naked and huge, onto the screen for micro-examination. Its ruminations on lost love are simple and poignant, but the spectacle of the minute is truly extraordinary.

Frances Chapman

A Little Gypsy in my Soul: Maria Vantsos

VANTSOSdesign Jodhpur  Rajasthan, India

 

To epitomise the spirit of January’s Embark edition we bring you an interview with Australian travel photographer Maria Vantsos whose flair for bright colour and bold images caught our eye at the Kiribilli Markets in Sydney earlier this month.

 

A Little Gypsy In My Soul is Maria’s collection of fine-art photography featuring far-off lands, exotic streetscapes and bold portraiture that celebrate the raw essence and aesthetic beauty of colour and culture around the world. Her range of display options allows you to choose a single stand-out canvas print or, our favourite, create a wall display of signature block-mounted tiles.

Maria talks to us about her process, her inspiration and the uniqueness of Australian travel culture.

 

We’ll start at the beginning. What brought you into this line of work?

When I was 22, I decided to take a year off from my studies to travel through South America with my older sister. I was studying graphic design at the time majoring in black and white photography. ‪‪Landing in Mexico to kick off our adventure changed that very quickly. Early one morning as we were travelling out of the city and down a dirt road our bus pulled over to pick up some locals and as the fog was lifting and I was awakening to a new day, I looked out of my window seat to see a line of native women in fluorescent pink ponchos and brightly coloured yellow bows tied around their long plaits, zigzagging down a lush green mountainside. I was in awe! I saw art, I saw the boldest of colours playing themselves out within a moment in everyday life. I remember thinking how beautiful it was to ‘see’ the world in colour. After many more trips overseas and friends complimenting me on my photography, I haven’t looked back. I started with several cafe exhibitions where my passion for combining travel, photography, and colour & culture into wall art has grown from there.

 

Your use of colour to evoke the soul of a place is remarkable. Can you describe your artistic process?

Thanks!

‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪’A Little Gypsy In My Soul’ now creates bold, rich fine art photography which celebrates colour and culture around the world! My passion and the challenge is to ‘see’ what can so often be missed‪‪‪‪… weathering paint, a hanging water urn, a passing moment. My body of work is an artistic approach to the celebration of colour but more than that it is also a documentation of tradition, culture, religion, tribe, and an identity unique to that country…. through people and place so much of what is disappearing due to globalisation can be frozen in time due to the power of photography.

‪‪‪‪My photos are featured onto our signature wooden tiles and as fine art canvas prints.

 

VANTSOSdesign Rajasthan, IndiaYou seem to have genuine passion for the places you visit. How do you decide where to travel and what to photograph?

It’s really inspired by how colourful a country is,‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪ where that character of culture and spirit is still predominant in everyday life. Mexico, Morocco, Cuba and India are some of the most fascinating and visually stimulating countries to explore. I also enjoy returning to countries I have previously travelled to years before. As I grow and change over the years my vision of what I’m inspired to capture also matures.

 

In your experience, do you think Australians have a particular interest in travel culture?

Absolutely! Particularly‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪ because we have grown up within a highly multi-cultural society and that exposure to so many different faces and facets influences many to want to explore further. Being so isolated from the rest of the world when we adventurous Aussies travel, we really like to spread our wings‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪!

 

As an artist do you work with anyone else or have you collaborated before?

No, I’m a one woman band, just me and my camera and the wide open road!

 

It seems you have visited some truly exotic places. What’s on the cards for 2015?

Returning to India to photograph the holi festival which marks the end of winter in early March. They welcome in the spring with throwing colour bombs at each other, so I can’t wait to be within the thick of it all to live and capture this amazing experience. ‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪I hope to travel through Vietnam towards the end of the year. I will also be spending the year designing new products featuring my photos so stay tuned.

 

VANTSOSdesign Yellow Rajasthan, IndiaCan you tell us about your current range and maybe highlight some favourite images?

I am currently in the process of working on my new collection for 2015 which I am looking forward to sharing soon.

There will be a feature range of photos from Morocco and the Greek Islands,‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪ showcasing my work from the last trip I did to these countries. It will also feature a new selection of photos from all around the world from previous trips. One of the highlights of my previous catalogue was featuring a beautiful sequence of different coloured turbans and saris I shot through India (pictured).

 

We met at the Kirribilli markets but you display at other retail venues throughout Sydney. Where can people get hold of your work?

I retail at Paddington/Bondi beach markets in Sydney every weekend and around Australia through various homeware and online stores such as Temple & Webster. ‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪My work can also be purchased from my website at www.vantsosdesign.com.au

Elise Janes