Category Archives: Museums
Exhibition to include drawings by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and one of the last drawings by Raphael before his death
A dazzling collection of old master drawings, originally assembled by the Ashmolean museum in Oxford to compensate for some distinctly second rate paintings, is going on display to celebrate the 330th birthday of one of the oldest public museums in the world.
The exhibition includes a wall of drawings by Michelangelo, a 15th century sketch by Durer, which is the oldest known example of an artist recording his travels in watercolour, and two tiny gems by Leonardo da Vinci.
The star is a staggering drawing of the Transfiguration, made within weeks, if not days of the death of Raphael, which the museum director, Christopher Brown, and the chief curator, Jon Whiteley, called “the greatest old master drawing in the world”. The artist made subtle changes to his designs for the faces of a beautiful young and an elderly bearded apostle, but the changes were never made in the painting in the Vatican, because Raphael died of fever – and according to the gossipy art historian Vasari, of being worn out from too much sex – at the age of 37. The painting was finished by his pupils.
The drawings, including works by Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Turner, Ingres, Degas, right up to a 1973 drawing by David Hockney and a 1993 drawing by Antony Gormley, normally live in the quiet darkness of the print room where, although anyone can ask to see them, they are among the museum’s least visited treasures. The exhibition was described as a once in a lifetime chance to see them all on the walls together, until mid August.
Whiteley said that when the Ashmolean moved into its present handsome building in 1846, the Bodleian library’s painting collection was transferred into grand new galleries – and a problem instantly became apparent: “We had a spectacular building, and objects barely worthy of exhibiting”.
The comparison with the magnificent painting collection of Oxford’s great rival, Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam, was particularly mortifying. The Ashmolean couldn’t afford to buy comparable paintings – though it now has a fine collection – and so bought fabulous but comparatively cheap drawings, including what became among the greatest Michelangelo and Raphael drawing collections in the world.
The 71 on display are a fraction of the 27,000-strong and still growing collection, but are described by Brown as “a star-studded line up”.
There’s as much emotion and tragedy in the exhibition as in a Hollywood blockbuster: a little sketch by Rembrandt, in a few flicks of brown ink, is his beloved wife, Saskia, asleep in bed – or more probably, given the date, dying of plague.
It includes a record of a surprising friendship, between the rumbustious Edwardian artist who lived long into the 20th century, Augustus John, and T E Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, whose career as an archaeologist and Arabist was shaped by visits to the Ashmolean. They met at the Paris peace conference at the end of the first world war, and became firm if improbable friends. John drew Lawrence in uniform in 1935, when Lawrence had enlisted in the Royal Air Force under the assumed name John Hume Ross. Lawrence loved the drawing so much – “striking, but not John at his best”, Whiteley judged sternly – that he announced it would be the frontispiece of his new book. It never happened: within a few weeks Lawrence was dead in a motorbike crash, still argued over as accident or suicide.
Master Drawings, Ashmolean Oxford, until 18 August.
Institutions like the Museum of Medical History in Berlin are responding to increasing claims to return bones and other human artifacts in their collections to indigenous peoples.
First Time Out project will display unusual treasures that curators have retrieved from their stores
Oddball objects that are normally hidden away in museum curators’ stores – including a working guillotine carved by Napoleonic prisoners of war from a cow bone left over from dinner – are going on display for the first time at museums across England.
Each of 10 museums taking part in the First Time Out project is to display one of the most unusual or downright weird treasures that curators have retrieved from their stores. For the project, each object will then move on to a new location in another museum and be placed among different exhibits.
Peterborough Museum’s guillotine was carved in macabre detail, even down to a basket waiting for a chopped off head, by French POWs held at Norman Cross near the city, from 1803 to 1815. Many of the prisoners became skilled carvers and craft workers, using scraps of rubbish including straw, wood, and left-over bones from meals, and handmade tools, including glass fragments, to make toys and ornaments to sell to visitors.
Peterborough Museum has about 700 such pieces, the largest public collection in the world.
Kew Gardens is putting out one of the rarest publications in its collection, by one of the most famous authors. Charles Darwin’s first book was a slim, privately printed volume of extracts from his letters sent home from HMS Beagle, written 24 years before the book that would change the world of science, On The Origin Of Species. The book, one of fewer than 100 copies printed, has never been displayed outside Kew’s library. It will be shown for the first time beside the original letters, before it moves to the Lightbox gallery and museum in Woking.
The Natural History Museum is to display a skull that it inherited in 1936 from the vast collections of Baron Rothschild. It has only recently been identified as the skull of a rough-toothed dolphin, finished with paint and scrimshaw – patterns incised on bones by sailors enduring long whaling trips.
An expert on such decoration, from the National Maritime Museum, has tentatively dated it – by the images of ships – to around 1850, but its creator will never be known, nor how it ended up in the Rothschild collections.
The Wellcome collection has dug out a cigar holder carved in 1864 from meerschaum clay, which was commonly used for making pipes. It shows in detail the coronation procession of Ludwig II. He became famed for his increasingly extravagant building projects, until he and his doctor were found dead in the lake at one of his castles, fulfilling his remark: “I wish to remain an eternal enigma.”
Newcastle’s Discovery Museum is exhibiting one of the earliest lightbulbs. It was made by Joseph Swan in 1881 and at the time cost a staggering 35 shillings, roughly equivalent to £130 today.
Swan had, on 20 October 1880, demonstrated his discovery to an astonished audience in Newcastle. One young man at the demonstration, John Holmes, was so awed he applied unsuccessfully to become Swan’s assistant, but then he set up his own domestic lighting business in the city.
He went on to invent the quick-break light switch, the ancestor of almost all those in use today. It will be shown alongside the bulb.
Ten previously hidden objects, weird, wonderful and beautiful by turn, go on display in First Time Out
New exhibition at London’s Museum of Childhood explores role of warfare in children’s play from 1800 to the present day
For a time in the 60s it was the toy every American boy had to have – the stupendous Johnny 7 One Man Army gun, which combined grenades and anti-tank weaponry and automatic firing with your more basic cap pistol. And more, all in one!
You can’t easily get one these days, but you can get a UK government-sanctioned enemy fighter figure, complete with pump action shotgun, combined assault rifle and sidearm pistol. All the items are part of a thought-provoking exhibition opening at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood on Saturday, which explores the role of warfare in children’s play from 1800 to now.
Co-curator Ieuan Hopkins admits they were not short of potential exhibits. “The first thing we did was go through the museum’s collections and the amount of material we had relating to war was incredible, it was quite a surprise. War has always been a part of children’s lives.”
More than 100 objects will go on display in a show meant for adults and children. It is meant to provoke debate. “We’ve been careful not to come down on one side of ‘are war toys good or bad?’” says co-curator Sarah Wood. “We are showing that these, mostly mass-produced, toys exist and we are putting them in context – how they have been used and how they’ve been perceived. We want to generate discussion and let the public have the argument.”
Wood concedes that some parents may not want to come, although she hopes they will. “To have an adverse reaction is just as good as embracing it, I’d like people to come and see it and make up their own minds.”
The exhibition explores numerous issues. It shows how toys have been used as tools of propaganda – a 1942 “Get Those Japs” dartboard being one of the cruder examples – and how they have been used to instil a sense of militarism and nationalism in children.
It also suggests there is not much parents can do to stop children playing war games even if they refuse to buy toy weapons. “Kids don’t need mass-produced objects to play war,” says Hopkins. “They’ll go in the woods and get sticks, anything will do.”
As an example of this a gun cabinet can be found in the first section, examining the more imaginative and physical ways kids play with war.
In it sits a relatively benign space gun alongside the Johnny 7 OMA gun and then simple sticks that Hopkins’ four-year-old son foraged. He also made an impressive Lego gun in the cabinet. “I didn’t help,” Hopkins insisted. “I asked questions, so the orange button does fire and the yellow is off, the green one at the back turns a light on – it does lots of things.”
Nearby is “a friendly, safe shooting range” that allows observation with binoculars and a periscope as the shooting.
The show alludes to changing attitudes in schools, where a zero tolerance for any kind of weapon play has relaxed into allowing things as long as they are part of an imaginative, creative process and are not mimicry.
The exhibition also asks if it is just boys who play at war – no, would seem to be the answer although HG Wells has his opinions on the matter with his 1915 war gaming book on display. Its full title is Little Wars: A Game for Boys from Twelve Years of Age to One Hundred and Fifty and For that More Intelligent Sort of Girl who Likes Boys’ Games and Books.There are many beautiful things on display and surprises. Who, in 1959, would have bought a Corgi nuclear missile carrier for their child?
There are loans from the Imperial War Museum and the Spielzeugmuseum in Nuremberg, items from the V&A’s collection as well as eBay, which is where most of the figures for a spectacular diorama were bought, creating one big battle involving everyone – aliens, knights, Power Rangers, superheroes, Daleks … the lot.
It may be war but the exhibition is unquestionably fun and it will encourage younger visitors to dress up and answer questions such as: rifle, ray gun or water pistol? And, importantly, what would you save? Death Star or tin fort? Wood says the answers may surprise. “I thought it was no-brainer, everyone would say Death Star, but we did a workshop with some teenagers and they all went for the tin fort. They liked the fact it was old.”
• War Games is at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London from 25 May to 9 March 2014.
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