Day(s) at the Museum(s)

We’ve been in London before, and enjoy visiting museums. Some, like the British Museum and the Tate Modern, are familiar to us. Others are new to us. We visit for a few hours, stop in the cafe, stroll the shop, and call it a successful visit.

The British Museum’s featured exhibit right now is on Hieroglyphs, featuring the Rosetta Stone. There were lots and lots of inscriptions, and discussion of how hieroglyphs came to be translated by Champollion and Englishman Thomas Young. A torso of a man covered with hieroglyphs reminded me of a young person covered with tattoos.

One of my all time favorite collections at the British Museum is the Lewis Chessmen, on the banner at the top of this post. These Viking era chess pieces were likely carved in Trondheim, Norway, and were on their way to Dublin to be sold or perhaps to be delivered to the wealthy merchant or clergyman who commissioned them, when somehow they were waylaid on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, where they were found buried in a pit lined with stone on the beach. It’s a story of international trade almost 1000 years ago. Jonathan and I have now seen all the chessmen in existence, divided between the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum. I love the personal expressions on the individual pieces, the glum queen, the bug-eyed king holding his sword, the berserker chewing his shield. They’ve got a lot of personality for little pieces of walrus tusk.

The Tate Modern is the complete opposite of the British Museum. Rather than a purpose-built Victorian edifice in the heart of the city, it occupies a former industrial space, the Bankside Power Station, on the edge of the Thames. The gigantic turbine hall at the center of the building provides a display space for huge works of art. When we visited it was hangings by Cecilia Vicuna, called Brain Forest Quipu. She took the idea of a quipu, strings of knots used for record keeping by the Inca, and ran with it. Groups of trailing white strands hang from the ceiling and pool on the floor.

I also appreciated some whimsical pieces of art, such as the “animal” with an impressive set of horns, the rest of it made of a few boxes and a disassembled chair. I was surprised to find a piece related to mudlarking at the Tate Modern, since most of the art is contemporary looking, as well as contemporary in date.

In the center of a small room is a very large, old-fashioned-looking cabinet with glass doors on the upper shelves and shallow sliding drawers and cabinets below. Every space is filled, and I thought it was an old “cabinet of curiosities” brought in by an artist. It turns out to be a piece commissioned by the museum. The contents of the cabinet are materials collected along the shore of the river in front of the Tate Modern and across the river on the shore in front of the Tate Britain. The cabinet holds bricks, pieces of flint, rope, metal bars, hooks, nails and parts of drains, bottles, pottery, a wide variety of seashells, and many other odds and ends, a cross-section of what is out on the shore of the Thames. It seemed especially put in place for me. We’ve been mudlarking in both places, the beach in front of the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain, too.

We went to see a current exhibit, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature at the National Gallery, and also to see some old favorites (mostly J. M. W. Turner). I realized during our visit that my affection for paintings of these artists and other traditional painters of the western canon (Goya, Gainsborough), goes back to my elementary school experience. I attended a crowded Catholic school, with 55 students in each classroom, and not a teacher’s aide in sight. Each of us had a black and white patterned composition notebook for a periodic class called Picture Study. We received a postcard-sized reproduction of a famous painting and pasted it on a clean page. The nun or teacher then dictated a couple of sentences about the picture that I remember laboriously copying below. There must have been a quiz, because there always was. Winslow Homer’s, The Gulf Stream, was one of the featured paintings in the Tate Britain exhibit, but nearby hangs a smaller work, Fog Warning, and I recognized it from my picture study of long ago.

From the Homer exhibit we went to see the J. M. W. Turner paintings. Iconic Turner paintings show the rising or setting sun over a crowded seashore, with huge sailing vessels at anchor or lumbering slowly out to sea. Again, one of these, The Fighting Temeraire, was in the picture study book of my childhood. It is remarkable to recall these paintings so clearly, and moving to see the real thing.

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Fighting Temeraire 1839 Oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm Turner Bequest, 1856 NG524

There were Turners at the Tate Britain, too, where there is a curious juxtaposition of a room full of dark and somber maroon and black paintings by Mark Rothko adjacent to the Turners. Rothko admired Turner and donated the series in hopes it would be hung as it is today, near the works he admired. They have nothing in common beyond the feelings of one artist for the work of another.

What struck us most strongly at the Tate Britain is the 2022 commission by sculptor Hew Lock, The Procession. It looks like a frozen parade, spilling out of rooms and down the main hallway. On closer examination, it is not a Mardi Gras celebration, but an elaborate allegory of colonialism and related themes. So many hints are embedded in the pieces that there are guides to indicate the numerous veiled references. (Jonathan’s comment was that conserving such an extensive group of objects would be an epic curatorial challenge.)

We’re going to keep visiting, though there are many, many museums here. If you include all the “house” museums, preserved homes, studios, and offices from the past, there are over 100. I’d have to be staying longer than one month!


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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