Something a little new, I thought I would review museums as seen in movies, just for a bit of fun.
Being the lover of action films, I’m not sure how I ever missed Demolition Man. However, watching the movie set up some particular narratives, that I’m definitely not on board with, I’m not devastated by this hole in my pop culture knowledge. There is a museum scene in the film, which I found pretty amusing.
There is nothing quite as satisfying than having a moment where a number of your passions come into alignment at the same time. Last weekend I had the joy of visiting the National Sound and Film Archive to explore the new exhibition ‘Game Masters’. My museum life was hanging out with my gaming life, and I don’t think I could have been more satisfied.
The world of gaming is going through an incredible time at the moment. Back when I was a wee girl in the 1980’s popular opinion made video games the realm of the young and those who had nothing better to do. They were something to scoff at, an illegitimate form of entertainment and the domain of the basement-dwelling white pasty male.
Honestly, I felt like a bit of a rebel against society. A girl who was playing games and thumbing my nose at those who thought my past times were a sign of immaturity. For me, and many of my friends, they were a style of storytelling that I connected to. The games that really stick out in my mind are Zelda, Final Fantasy and the Dungeons and Dragons PC games. I migrated from console and PC gaming, and made my way into tabletop games, designing stories and worlds that would explore the narratives that I connected to. I think it moulded me into team player, a deep thinker and a problem solver.
I’m extremely impressed to see that the National Film and Sound Archive are accepting their first games into the collection. It’s only right that collections start to reflect this medium more fully, not just an art form, but as something that has (and will) influence society. It will be interesting to see how they go about this process with some game consoles beginning to get to the end of their spare-parts life. It sounds like a great adventure in future planning!
The Game Masters Exhibition is fabulous. The exhibition was initially debuted in its home, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. It’s travelled extensively overseas, and this is its first visit to Australia. The exhibition stretches over three spaces all of which include a startling number of games that you can play. This is a hands-on exhibition, with staff on hand to explain ideas and gameplay to visitors.
I loved the theming of the spaces, and the text panels were spot on. It’s rare to see so much information readily available about the game designers and how a game comes together. The games were all working, almost a miracle considering the breakdown rate of touch screens and TVs in exhibitions. The games and designer choices are really thoughtful, pulling out trailblazers that started genres (like Wil Wright, Peter Moyneux) and new Indie designed creating amazing concepts (like thegamecompany and Ken Wong). There were many moments were Mr Geek, and I made squeaky excited noises where we found a game that we loved and felt connected to. We tried a few new things. I oooh-ed and aaaah-ed at drawings and handwritten notes and company structures and models. It was just fabulous fun with ways of engaging people who may have no interest in the genres at all. There are a good number of photos below with notes.
I wish there were a merchandise shop for this one because I would have loved to go home with some swag. I like that the exhibition wasn’t buying into the stereotypical mouth-breathing basement-dwelling nerd. I felt very welcome and among a wide variety of people from the community. I was not the only woman playing enthusiastically on the consoles, which was fabulous to see. There were youngesters, all the way through to people who may have started gaming significantly before I was born.
Whether you love games, feel confused by them, or just want to understand what the gaming community finds in them; this is an excellent opportunity to learn about why they matter and who some of the movers and shakers have been.
PS: A shout out to my Dad who had Captain Comic installed on our very first computer. A shout out to my hubby for introducing me to Dungeons and Dragons, and to Mike for letting me play on their Nintendo 64. A big shout out to my weekly gaming group who I design with, solve problems with and imagine better worlds with.
I popped into the Dressmaker Exhibition, at the National Sound and Film Archive, and was thoroughly impressed. 8 years living in the ACT and I am kicking myself for not checking out the dozens of previously advertised NFSA exhibition. This exhibition closes on the 18th of August, so if you haven’t seen it, I would suggest going sooner rather than later.
The Dressmaker (the film), is an Australian classic. Having been convinced to watch it by my lovely Aunty, I will admit that it wasn’t specifically my cup of tea. The filmography and costuming were amazing, the story building is fantastic, but it was thoroughly lacking in superheroes and fast cars. Incredible film though, just not my taste. The film is probably best described as a revenge/comedy/drama set in outback Australia and explores the mysterious past of the female lead character Myrtle Dunnage. Myrtle is a fabulous dressmaker, which means that the costuming has a strong place within the film.
Although I enjoy costuming and anything textile, the Dressmaker Exhibition had been in my peripheral view, and it took a lovely friend arriving in town with a love for dressmaking to decide the matter. I loved the costumes on display. They were amazing. Lovely textiles, great embroidery, beautiful dress shapes.
Beyond the costumes, I loved the exhibition itself! It was interesting comparing the atmosphere between this exhibition, and my recent exploration of the Guo Pei exhibition. The Geo Pei exhibition was glamorous and it felt like you could be looking through a veil while standing on the runway or in the dressing room with the mannequins. It creates a dreamy feel to the whole exhibition. The Dressmaker Exhibition was the complete opposite. The dresses (and suits) stand with the set photography behind them in lovely bright lights. The display cases provide further insights with additional props or equipment, deepening the narrative behind the scenes that called for each piece. For many parts, it was easy to feel as connected to the dress as it was to the atmosphere and narrative of the movie. Remote Australian, with this injected glamour, and a whole bunch of f**k this. It felt punchy, not dreamy.
It’s probably a ridiculous thing to focus on, but I also loved the magazine stands. Yep... magazine stands.
It’s for two major reasons. Firstly, the magazines that were on display described the costumes as if they were haute couture. It felt like it was something the character, Myrtle, should have. It felt like the pieces were being elevated to the runway in Paris she belonged, and that it was throwing shade on the denizens of the horrible little town. Secondly, the magazine stands were just really nicely constructed and low impact on the exhibition itself. I took a surprising number of photos that I think may have confused the poor museum staff member who was looking after the floor that day (thanks for your patience!).
Marion Boyce plays a dual part in this fantastic exhibition: She is the designer/curator of the exhibition but was also the film costumer designer for The Dressmaker. I’ve noticed several future exhibitions that are tied to her, which I will certainly be making a point to visit.
I felt like this was a worthwhile exhibition to see, if you would like to snap up a ticket you can either buy them at the counter or pop onto the NSFA website: https://www.nfsa.gov.au/events/dressmaker-costume-exhibition
Friends, I love embroidery. I’m sure you have already picked that up. Yesterday, I went to an exhibition at the Asian Civilisation Exhibition on the work by Guo Pei that just sunk into my soul. That moment, where people talk about being emotionally moved by a piece of art, or music? That was me, in awe. The embroidery and beading work is beyond anything I have ever seen in person before. Beyond literally getting lost in the design of the works, the exhibition design is divine. And it has a fabulous education section. I was in heaven.
Guo Pei is China’s leading couturiere, creating not only incredible clothing for famous people, but also artistic pieces that are mind blowing. Having started sewing at the age of 2 (!), her career started in Tianma and then moved on to create Rose Studio in 1997. Gus’s dresses are designed to tell a story, through the medium of fabric and textiles. The entire outfit stitches together to tell a narrative. Her most famous work is most likely what the media started calling the ‘Omelette Dress’ (I believe it’s actual name is the Empress Dress), which was worn by Rihanna during the Met Gala in 2015.
The exhibition is beautifully designed, with lighting that highlights the dresses perfectly. The first section, has a minimalistic wardrobe feeling to it. The dresses are displayed next to either clothing or items from collections that form part of the inspiration behind the design. In the second section along, the dress on the mannequins have well placed mirrors around them, giving the impression that the wearable items are being admired by the wearer. When you move into the last section, which are highly sculptural artistic designs (only really worn for the runway) the mirrors disappear for the dresses to stand by themselves in the space. The interpretation is spot on. Short and easy to read panels, and the exhibition guide (in multiple languages) doesn’t just repeat exactly what is on the walls. There is soft music to set the feeling of the space, and benches to gaze upon the works.
I loved the education section of the exhibition as well, which is designed for both children and adults. The learning space is located well and truly on the other side of the exhibition, where the prized Empress Dress commands the space. There are a couple of really great reasons for the location: the noise of creating and having fun doesn’t leak into the other galleries, it’s outside of the paid section so it can tempt people in, and it a lovely well lit area. There is a reading area with books about art and design in fashion, a creation space for making clothes on mannequins and a great embroidery area that doesn’t include the risk of visitors stabbing themselves with sharp needles. It’s really just fabulous and inviting for anyone to touch, play and learn.
Go see this exhibition, it you can. It’s wonderful and inspiring, both as an embroidery geek and as a museum design/interpretation enthusiast. I am so glad I had the chance to see this. I left with a much great appreciation of Chinese art and fashion.
Today the group had planned tours at the National Museum of Singapore, Battlebox and the Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning. All three were quite fascinating and had slightly different takes on important national narratives.
The National Museum was incredibly beautiful. The building was completed in 1887 as the Raffles Library and Museum and has been extended and renovated sympathetically multiple times. The building has a combination of British neo-classical styling, with slicker recent renovations. There are some *huge* audio visuals used inside galleries. The interpretation of the collection is fascinating, and shies away from going into grim or gritty details. Instead, it focuses primarily on the successes and future of Singapore as a country.
I was particularly struck by this in the Growing Up gallery. The Growing Up gallery focuses on Singaporean history between the 1950’s-1960’s, a particularly complex time for Singapore, but the exhibition mainly focuses on the introduction of education and industry to the country. This isn’t unreasonable, it’s just a tad jarring for this little museum nerd who finds pulling out the raw and ugly truth invigorating. Lesson for today was that maybe a little bit of lightness and pride can actually go a long way.
As a side note, being deeply in love with children and public programs, I had been deeply disappointed in the lack of interactivity in the galleries. Then I found the activities section and my mind was blown. I was also highly skeptic although about a children's activity book that included 116 pages - but it totally works! Super impressed.
Battlebox was quite different. The Battlebox started it’s life as the Headquarters Malaya Command Operations Bunker. More popularly, many will know of the bunker as the location where Commonwealth forces decided to surrender to the Japanese forces during WW2. It’s not where the surrender was signed. The rooms generally do not include original artefacts, as most were lost either during or just after the conflict. It is certainly quite a somber location.
I felt that the story of Singapore was a little lost in the tour. The history of the bunker is explained in length, and the conflicts crescendo builds as films portray the swift advance of Japan down the coast. But story revolves around the commanders that were placed in power, and only briefly touches on the effect of the conflict on Singapore as a country. Primarily, and unsurprisingly I suppose, the story revolves around the bunker and the people within it.
Which leads me to our last adventure of the day, the Bicentennial Experience. It was certainly an incredible experience. I never thought I would stand in the rain, under an umbrella, in a building with a roof. Or that I would watch actors playing historical figures while balancing on a conveyor belt. The best word I could honestly use is ‘intense’.
I was struck as just how completely earnest the production was. The narrative is really a call to arms, asking Singaporeans to see values in certain traits and to aspire to continue growing in the future. It something that I don’t think would work in Australia. I was pretty impressed through that this Experience at least did peer into some of the unhappier aspects of history.
All three are telling a part of the Singaporean story. I would argue that both the Museum and the Bicentennial Experience are telling stories that they hope will become rallying calls towards shared ideals and goals as a society. I think that the way they are telling those stories could spend a bit more time filling in the gaps in history, and not shying away from the messier parts. It felt a bit sugary at times, but they were fantastic places to visit.
I couldn’t help but be somewhat amused at the differences between two articles that I read this week: One that focused on the passion that Smithsonian has for repatriation of sacred and important collections, the other reporting on the reaction the public had towards the British Museums assertion that their collection is not entirely made up of looted items from the colonial era.
Amusing to me, and it must make others grind their teeth in total frustration.
I’m incredibly disappointed that for the last part of my Open Palaces Programme adventure, I missed seeing Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tour of the British Museum. Alice is an Australian running incredible tours in London which look at the uncomfortable history of items and artworks in museums. And it’s not just about the stolen nature of some of the objects, but about the way that colonialism continues to effect the way things are described, displayed and stored. I desperately want to get my hands on one of the badges she was handing out “Display is like you stole it”. I also find it amazing that such a great piece of agitation, may have contributed to the British Museum releasing a statement that sounds a lot like “Not everything is looted!”. But enough of it is.
While on the program we visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded by Augustus Pitt Rivers (a name which sounds like it should feature in a movie about looting crypts in the Victorian era) in 1884, seeded with 22,000 of his collected objects from around the world. His history is both fascinating and exciting, and completely of the era he was from. Rivers was a noted archaeologist, with a particular interest in tracking the history of human invention. Thus, the museum space is fascinating in its grouping of objects with like objects. The tags in the cases are sparse in information, presenting the item as a piece of a larger puzzle. What this lacks, regularly, is contextual information. What this does (unintentionally, I hope), is to put a beautiful bone china cup next to something rougher from somewhere ‘other’ and allow the viewer to see that obviously the British cup is much less primitive. That evolution and invention has been better in Britain or other ‘developed’ countries.
Hold on, I think I may be letting some of my bias and annoyance show. Let me just try and tuck that away for the moment.
I was born in Australia, and have always known that we are in a colonised land. Opinions and approaches to this have changed dramatically over time, but the violence that is a by product of that invasion is something that can not be ignored. The colonial period is intensely complicated, and is a time of great developments in science and understanding the world we live in. It’s also littered with violence and acts of great injustice which we are only now starting to fully understand and work through. So while I understand the significance of not removing histories successes, I think we need to spend more time really reflecting on what had to occur to make those achievements.
The Pitt Rivers Museum holds a special place in my mind as being stunningly beautiful and everything I imagined a Victorian era museum would be. Oxford is an amazing town (city?), and I felt so amazed to be standing in a place of such history. The Pitt Rivers Museum can be accessed directly from the street, or you can take the scenic route through the Natural History Museum first, with it’s dodos, dinosaurs and other delights. When you walk through the massive doors, you will be faced with soft light bathing the multi story open space. And it is filled to the brim with cases of curiosity. I was properly in awe, my breath lost as I stared at the space. There were giggles and gasps in the museums sound scape as people took in not only the historic items on display, but also the surprisingly gory. I was horrified to discover that the museum is still in possession of Indigenous Australia remains. I was mortified when I began to look at the history of Australian’s asking for the remains to come home only to have to fight for the right to bring their family home to Country. When I asked about the repatriation process, I discovered that the museums policy is really about waiting to receive requests and that these requests do not happen regularly.
The article from the Smithsonian hit the note that I had really been hoping to see. The Smithsonian is significantly larger then the Pitt Rivers Museums, but I should note that the museum is one of many that are managed by Oxford University (which is a fairly large organisation). The Smithsonian has repatriation offices that actively seek to reconnect items and human remains with communities. It has a goal to reduce the number of human remains held by the museums to zero. I enjoyed reading an article that actually celebrated the ideals of repatriation. I feel like British museums could really benefit from setting some appropriate goals around what is appropriate to have in a museum collection.
What I did hear in the museum itself, and from having read a number of articles revolving specifically around the Pitt Rivers Museum were statements of concern to send the items back to the communities from whence they came from. And if absolute evidence can’t be found, then hiccups occur in the process. What this (once again, unintentionally I hope) breeds is a feeling that British Museums feel that they understand our communities and country better then we do ourselves. This is extremely patronising, and honestly there are a good number of institutions in Australia which would be much more experienced in working with Australian communities then most British institutions.
It easy to fall into a thought process that exclaims how easy this should all be. Repatriation and reconciliation is not a simple process, but it is ennobled by being an active process. When an organisation is seen to actively seek out traditional owners and question the history of their collections, it is an act of reconciliation. It’s facing our own complex histories, putting aside the inlaid shame, and offering to be transparent in our desire to be honest about history and ownership. Instead of waiting for communities to present themselves into our European style processes, approach communities and find out how the museum can work with their systems. If you can’t find a community something belongs to, at least have a partnership museum in the right country, and return it to them until a permanent home can be found. Museums and galleries may find themselves with unexpected friendships that deliver more content and information then any stollen artificial could hope to give. They could find deep and wonderful contextual details. And if the list is so huge, because I do understand just how many countries have been touched by the colonial era, then alphabetise it and start from the top. I imagine the process would be hard, with complexities, but reconciliation is not meant to be an easy process. The point is to learn from our mistakes, not to ignore them or explain them away.
Articles that influenced and touched this blog post:
It’s interesting just how much angst I have felt about writing this blog, and amusingly this morning I found that the draft I had been working on had disappeared. Which means I have had even more time to dwell on the embroidered food bags that I have recently completed for a heritage home display.
The food bags were decided on to fill an interpretation hole in the space. The space is not able to have any panels or electronic means for interpretation, but there is an enthusiastic volunteer and staff team. The embroidered food bags were to be added into the living area of the 1860s zone, along with a number of other display food items. A common way of storing dry staple foods during this time period were cotton bags, but having bags without interpretation seemed lacking in depth. We were also a little concerned about people trying to open them and spilling the stuffing out in an attempt to work out what was in them (curiosity being the chief mother of invention and also mess).
I am an embroider, and love spending time on researching historic embroidery pieces. I sadly have been unable to find any indication of embroidered food bags. However, I can prove that women on their way to Australia on the boats did spend time embroidering and sewing small pieces. I can say that Mary Ginn, the first female occupant of the cottage was educated and likely had been taught embroidery as part of her education. We know that she could read and write. The font used for the bags is from a period embroidery book, which was fairly readily available. I do know that the fabric is on par with what should be expected, the threads are right and the stitching style is popular during that period.
Can I prove that there were absolutely embroidered food bags in the 1860s?
And it drives me crazy.
So why am I admitting to this?
During the Open Palaces Programme, I was struck by a talk that was given at the Tower of London. The Yeoman Warder who took us around during our tour was incredibly open about what had been tried and succeeded. Beyond that, he told us what hadn’t worked. Why it hadn’t worked. The processes that led to both success and failure and how they measured those attempts. And it inspired me, because in failure there is a great amount of strength. Knowing what has and hasn’t worked helps us to grow.
So, have I failed with these baggies? I don’t know. On one hand, the interpretation works perfectly. Visitors react to them really well and ask why the food is in bags. It sets up an indication of what hand writing could kind of look like. So there is some great things happening. However, I feel like it’s not quite right, so I will keep looking for evidence (whether for or against). I think the chief thing I could have done is finish them a hell of a lot faster. Part way through the process, I froze up with anxiety over whether they were right and how they would reflect on my (and the heritage home) if they were wrong. That was a good learning experience, in that sometimes you need to go forwards to give yourself time to think in the future. I can also say that the embroidery was travelling at about 1 letter per two hours, on average, so they took a really long time to complete. There are dozens of little things that my perfectionist brain hates as well, but they are far less useful to dwell on.
I don’t know if I will call this any type of serious failure. I will call this a learning experience that I can develop from. I will also be open and transparent, because failure is healthy. It’s good to fall over and make mistakes and doubt ourselves. And if we share these stories and these thoughts openly, then it helps others to make informed choices in the future. It also just makes us feel less alone.
Firstly, I think I should acknowledge my own naivety before going over the England for the first time. There were many things that I had made assumptions on, or simply underestimated in large ways.
No 1 Royal Crescent, visited for a workshop conducted with the Open Palaces Programme, was one of those underestimated locations. I have been to many heritage houses in Australia, and so I was mildly interested but not overly enthusiastic. By the time I had completed my first two sessions with the Bath Preservation Trust (Beckford’s Tower and Museum of Bath Architecture), I could not wait to listen and learn from Dr Amy Frost again. Honestly, I would have happily listened to her in any location, No 1 was just a receptacle for another workshop and I was okay with that.
No 1 Royal Crescent is not simply a heritage house. It is part of a series of 30 houses, joined together like modern townhouses, forming a concave crescent. Built between 1767 and 1774 by John Wood the Younger, it is a stunning piece of Palladian design. The Georgian architecture is stunning, and standing on the parkland in front of the houses it was hard to imagine the person power it would have taken to build these houses before modern building machinery. No 1 is the first building on the eastern end of the crescent, and is dedicated as a museum for Georgian life.
Up until this point, I could not have imagined what standing in front of the crescent would feel like. I am still struck by just how big so many of these grand buildings are. The crescent is spectacular, and standing in the parkland in front of the building I felt so very very small in comparison. Behind me, is lovely park land for creating a beautiful vista to look out upon from the houses windows. Up until this point, I had never seen anything comparable. During this trip, I would regularly find myself in awe of the sheer presence these buildings had in the landscape.
Being greeted at the door by a very convincing Georgian butler was also lovely.
The workshop at the museum focused on the creation of engaging and small exhibition. Given a space in which to design a concept, and objects that had be included, our group was given a limited amount of time to come up with some ideas and then present to the group. I had the chance to team up with Helen, Marian, Trisha and Rachel, who were awesome to work with. We decided on an exhibition that focused on leisure during Georgian times with the title of the exhibition being “A Game of Class”. It was a lot of fun banging the idea together and considering what ways we could activate participation in the displays and exhibition as a whole.
A few of the big take away points here (and this is an extreme summary, because there was a lot to think about from this workshop) included:
There was so much more then just these points, but these are the parts I have already started using back in my home museum.
I must admit, having originally looked at the Open Palaces Programme, I was so excited about the workshops. Finding out that they were group activities, turned my smile into something more akin to ‘The Scream’, with nightmare visions of university group work. But I am so glad that we had so many opportunities to work together. Everyone had slightly different backgrounds and interests, and I have come away from the program somewhat disappointed that chances to work with these incredible people are going to be limited by time and space. They were delightful to work with and learn from!
During my trip with the Open Palaces Programme, I had spare afternoons and mornings which I filled with museums and heritage. Sometimes I would wander by myself and sometimes I would have company. My wandering to the Fashion Museum included Calla Sundin and Rachel Cottle, two awesome museum folks who put up with my ranting and raving with lots of amusement.
The Fashion Museum had been high on my list of places to visit. Being an avid embroiderer, I have always wanted to see the Elizabethan embroidered pieces. So after a morning at the Bath Museum of Architecture, I headed off with extreme purpose. My head was filled with brightly coloured embroidery silks and linen.
The museum is located within the Assembly Rooms, a heritage building designed by John Woods and his son John Woods in 1769. The rooms were designed for communities to hold grand balls and get togethers, which it still does to this day under the careful guardianship of the National Trust. Below the shindigs and frivolity, is the basement home of the Fashion Museum. The collection was started by Doris Langley Moore, arguably one of the first female fashion historians. The collection was seeded by Moore’s personal collection and has been added to each year with both historic and modern items.
The collection is incredibly comprehensive and beautiful. I really wanted to be able to sit down and sketch dress after dress, but did not have the time or ability to do so. The museum was filled with people, which was both wonderful and included my pet irritation of audio guides. The museum was completely quiet and included the shuffling masses moving to each curated one sided conversation. As I stood there, marvelling at the embroidered jacket that I had poured over in books a million times over, I was somewhat saddened that it was in this quiet space in a darkened area to prevent damage to it. My companions listened into the audio guide, which is quite fair, and I longed to be able to actually discuss what was there in front of us. What I find problematic, particularly in traditionally designed museum spaces (which this certainly was), with audio guides is that not all people benefit from listening to someone speak to them. As interested in a topic as I am, the moment I have no way to interact with the information my brain removes itself from the situation. Audio guides can be wonderful, but it should considered to be only one way of interacting with guests. There were some text panels, but that only gives a secondary information output and was significantly less detailed then the audio guide.
To protect the pieces, the clothing was often in darkened spaces with specialised lighting. At first I enjoyed this display, but as the shuffling masses moved me along, I started to find it reminiscent of how I was feeling about the exhibition. Somewhat removed and distant from these items that I had lusted over seeing in person. It did however make for some fantastic photos. There is a singular hands on space, where replicas can be tried on for the ever important selfie moments.
What I would have loved to see was more areas where you could interact with the collection or people. If I could change the displays, I would add in nooks and crannies which included touch stations, design spaces, drawing areas, interactive spaces. I would have loved to have seen more humans - the designers, the makers and the wearers. If I could have only one style of interactive it would be focussed on how the different clothing was made - preferably in a way where the visitor could attempt to create their own design and then have it printed out for collection at the desk when I left the museum.
I would absolutely go back again, the collection is incredible and well worth a visit. I just felt alienated by it, and unable to connect on a level that I wanted to. I can thoroughly recommend the shop for a decent fashion books and the cafe in the Assembly Rooms was lovely
Beckford’s Tower was on our list for the Open Palaces Programme, scheduled for a hands on workshop with Dr Amy Frost. Beckford’s Tower is part of the Bath Preservation Trust, along with a number of other buildings that I visited during the educational program. Dr Amy Frost is the Senior Curator and led two of our workshops, and also demonstrated her wonderful abilities in stone masonry at the Bath Museum of Architecture.
Beckford’s Tower is an incredible building that was lovely to spend time in. To reach the tower itself there is a quick stroll through a surprisingly beautiful graveyard. I felt a little like I was wandering into the beginning of a fairy tale, and wondered whether a princess would let her hair down from the gold gilded peak of the tower. I managed to make it up most of the tower until my terror of enclosed spaces and heights won out. It was an incredible view though. I loved the curation within the building and thought it was just a marvellous place to study.
The building was constructed in the 1820s, commissioned by William Beckford, an English novelist. He had a deep passion for architecture and landscaping, with a love for the picturesque movement. His tower was built as a place of solitude and quiet, landscaped to mimic the concepts within the picturesque art pieces that he enjoyed. It included a vast pleasure garden that stretched between his home, located on Lansdowne Crescent, to the tower which is at the top of Lansdowne Hill.
With his death, the land was sold to a publican who used the area briefly as a beer garden in the early 1840s. It was repurchased by Beckford’s daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, in 1848, who donated the building and land to the Walcot Parish, where it entered it’s second life as a graveyard. The tower was partly converted into a chapel to carry out funerals. Originally, Beckford had been buried in Bath Abbey Cemetery, but he was reinterred shortly after the towers transformation.
It’s third life started in the 1970’s, sold after being made redundant by the church. It had endured a catastrophic fire that had destroyed much of it’s contents in the 1930s. Privately purchased, the first intention was to renovate the building into two flats. The Beckford Tower Trust and museum were established in 1977 and it started it’s new life as a historical site. Bath Preservation Trust are now the primary caretakers of the building. As a side thought, if you ever want to stay the night it looks quite beautiful and is available through The Landmark Trust (link below).
The workshop at Beckford’s Tower was a hands on chance to create reports focussed on restoration and conservation of the building. There was a very pleasant 60 minutes of walking through sections and finding areas that we thought could use conservation. Dr Frost was brilliant, allowing us to come up with our own thoughts and I was pleasantly surprised that as a group we perhaps picked up on 50% of what we should have noticed. The other 50% included us madly taking down notes and asking a lot of questions. Dr Frost was incredibly enjoyable to listen to and wonderfully pragmatic about the limitations that are involved in small heritage sites without huge budgets.
The second part of the workshop included considering how to work on the interpretation of the landscaping, which has significantly changed since Beckford’s time. The area is complex, with management of the building being organised by Bath Preservation Trust, and the grounds managed by the Bath & North East Somerset Council. This style of situation in heritage sites is not unusual, but nevertheless awkward. I can imagine there must be a great deal of diplomacy and consultation being conducted behind the scenes. I did like the challenge of considering how you could interpret a site that can never go back to what it once was. Those bodies are happily buried for the rest of their existence. So how can you interpret something that is stubbornly no longer there?
My thoughts revolved around two concepts. One of my coworkers created a fantastic children’s activity that they called time telescopes. Using old photos printed on transparencies, they attached them to white PVC pipes. By looking through the pipe, you could overlay the picture with what now existed. This is a very low cost alternatives to the AR apps being used by multiple organisations, where an overlay of images can be created to call back to the past. However, there are not really any photos of the gardens during their existence. My idea was that an artistic interpretation could be designed, using paintings that were focussed on the written details of what was described in the garden, and painted in the picturesque style that Beckford loved. For a low cost option, large interpretation panels could be placed in the landscape allowing participants to look through the semi transparent window that had a view painted onto it. Alternatively you could design an app that painted those images onto the phone screen depending on where it picked a person standing. It was an enjoyable thing to image, and I think quite influenced by a video I had recently seen of Van Gogh’s Starry Night brought to life (I’ve popped a link in below).
Beckford’s Tower only opens on select dates during the year, so I recommend checking out their website. It’s well worth a visit!
Beckford’s Tower: http://beckfordstower.org.uk
Landmark Trust: Beckford’s Tower
3d VR version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night: Motion Magic
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.