I had a holistic museum experience today at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, so I thought I’d tell you about it.
I haven’t visited it since it reopened after renovations in 2009, but the new exhibition The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland prompted me to go along. The exhibition itself is brilliant, a double-layered dose of art history – Classical antiquities and the story of the English collectors who purchased them on the 18th century Grand Tour – flavoured with a bit of derring-do. The Westmorland, a ship carrying homeward-bound consignments of sculptures and paintings, including the 18th century equivalent of a postcard, a reduced size oil copy of your favourite painting seen at Rome, was intercepted by French vessels, condemned as a prize, and her cargo sold to the Real Academia des Bellas Artes in Spain. (When I say “condemned” I’m using the language of the time to indicate that the ship was now legally a prize of war, not that she was unseaworthy – indeed, the Westmorland was recaptured by the British at a later date.)
The Ashmolean is free, but for exhibitions has a policy of charging disabled people full price entry with carer going free. There is no universal rule on this, but it’s quite a common policy. I quite agree that carers shouldn’t pay, but what happens when you go with a relative or friend who isn’t a carer? I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea that in those circumstances the disabled person pays and their non-disabled friend doesn’t, particularly if the disabled person is the one who finds it more difficult to obtain employment. Bit of a minefield this one. The V&A permits the disabled person plus up to two carers to go free which I think is an excellent policy – allowing the independent/lone travelling disabled person to benefit as well as those who are accompanied. Anyway, I pointed out this anomaly, and at their discretion the ticket desk agreed with me and sold me a ticket at the concessionary rate. Yay!
After the exhibition I thought I would join a guided tour of Olympic-related art themes from Classical times to the present day, especially as it was only half an hour. Before having the CI I would never have contemplated going to a spoken museum tour on my own (the Bear used to lipspeak for me on guided tours!) as it’s simply too tiring and you miss too much trying to take in both the artefact/painting and what the guide is saying at the same time. Specialist talks are now given in London and some regional museums in BSL, lipspeaking, and speech-to-text transcription and previously these were the only talks I would ever have considered attending.
I decided to give it a go and as there were only a couple of other folks besides me, it was intimate and interesting, and I could follow very easily and interact with them as well – the guide invited us to discuss the objects and to ask questions. For me the highlight of the tour was the Greek boxer with a broken nose and scratches on his face which would originally have been picked out in bronze. No, really, the highlight was that I could follow without difficulty!!
The only caveat I would have with their guided tours is the architecture of the Ashmolean. It has been renovated according to the latest museology – lots of open spaces opening off a splendid feature staircase called the Cascade Stairs – and huge island glass cases, allowing you to see the objects from all sides. It looks wonderful, and is airy and cool, better for both visitors and objects, but it makes for a difficult hearing environment on occasion as parties clatter around or a child kicks up a fuss somewhere, or you’re in a room with a wooden, rather than stone, floor. I don’t think museums should be hushed and awed environments, or stuffy places, and the light well around the Cascade Stairs sets the objects off to good effect, but I do sometimes wonder whether such issues as the sound environment have been included in considering access issues. There’s level access and lifts to each floor, which is as it should be, but in my experience folks rarely think outside the box for a bit more than that.
I am a firm believer, though, that giving the public intelligent and well-informed labels provides true access – intellectual access – it makes the latest scholarship accessible. Someone’s painstaking backroom research eventually becomes the stuff of school textbooks. I’m not a fan of the “any fule kno” school of labels ruining exhibitions because they don’t do much beyond telling us what we can see for ourselves. I was hugely impressed with the Italian painted panel on display, which had modern stage-by-stage copies beneath, showing the viewer exactly how those panels were painted – illuminating and fascinating. By contrast, on a recent visit to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, the label to a similar painted panel told us that it had recently been the subject of new thinking after conservation, but told us nothing about how the conservation process itself had transformed understanding of the panel. That particular label also said that the subject was God telling Mary that she was to be the mother of the child Jesus. Explaining that in simple terms is fine in itself – people don’t necessarily know the Christian stories which are the backbone of much of Western art, while for children and those who need an Easy Read format it is helpful – but not going any further fails to satisfy anyone eager to know more, and disappoints the already well-informed. It’s a hard line to tread, but the Ashmolean got it more right because it was a simple, practical demonstration of how those medieval effects were achieved, visible at child height, and gave someone like me, relatively well-versed in art techniques, an informative insight into the process. (Interestingly, the RAMM, another renovated regional museum, has displayed objects in the same sort of style, but not particularly well, going for the ‘let’s juxtapose really different things in the hope the contrast itself is interesting’ approach.) Going back to the Ashmolean, I really liked being able to go eyeball-to-eyeball with busts of Romans and Victorian ladies – and Oliver Cromwell. They weren’t remote, but standing, as it were, next to me.
I’ve saved the best bit till last. Dutch art of the Golden Age is one of my passions. A beautifully decorated guitar caught my eye – a masterpiece by Rene Voboam and placed in its context with an image of the Guitar Player by Vermeer, strumming a strikingly similar instrument. That was squealsome enough. What I didn’t know was that, to complement their own collection, a number of works by private collectors are currently on display. When I noticed a tiny Vermeer – the only Vermeer in a private collection – was on the wall my jaw dropped in shock. I told someone the other day that my mission in life was to tick off every Vermeer known to exist. I just didn’t think that I would actually get to see this one today! Do go and see both the exhibition and the Vermeer this summer!