Monday, 27 August 2012

The Horniman and Another London exhibition

We had a little excursion to Forest Hill today and had a potter around the Horniman Museum in the morning, something I've been meaning to do for a while.  I really liked the Horniman.  It was something about the atmosphere I think, and the way that they somehow manage to combine the feeling of a very Victorian 'cabinet of curiosities' with a modern museum complete with modern interpretation and a child-friendly, accessible atmosphere.  We were only there for an hour, so this is far from a detailed appraisal but I liked the listening tables in the musical instruments exhibitions, I liked the giant walrus and I liked the centenary exhibition.  My only mild criticism was to do with the doors to the different exhibition spaces, which were all closed, and made me feel like I perhaps wasn't supposed to go in there, even though on closer investigation it was clearly ok to do so.

We've had quite a cultural bank holiday weekend in fact because yesterday we went to see the Another London exhibition at Tate Britain.  This is an exhibition of overseas photographers who have photographed London through the years.  It gives an outsider's view of the capital from various different angles.  It struck me before we went how similar it might be to the Museum of London's Street Photography exhibition last year which I really enjoyed and in many ways the comparison was a valid one. 

The Tate Britain exhibition made me realise, however, that I really do prefer history / social history exhibitions to ones that I'll broadly call 'art' exhibitions.  At the time of London Street Photography at the Museum of London, I heard it said that it was quite a 'traditional hang' i.e. had, in many ways, the feeling of a more traditional art exhibition much more than the rest of the Museum.  It was noticeable that visitors behaved very differently to the way that they do in other parts of the Museum, following a very linear path and lingering in front of each photograph for a long time in the way that people do in galleries. 

In this way, the exhibition at Tate Britain felt very similar.  Quite quiet crowds of people moved slowly from photograph to photograph, in order, looking at each one for a minute or so at a time. 

The difference came, however, I found, when it came to the captions.  The Tate Britain captions in many cases gave very little information about the photograph's subject.  I felt that one was supposed to appreciate the photograph from an aesthetic perspective first and foremost.  There's nothing very wrong with this per say, but I don't really feel I have the requisite skills to be very good at it. Being a Londoner by blood, and by current residence, if not by birth, I love London and I love London's history and I love seeing places that I know today, and imagining how they would have been in the past, when my ancestors (about 3/4s of whom were from London for generations) lived here, worked here and went about their daily lives here.  The 'Another London' captions gave me little to further this pursuit, limiting captions often to a slightly esoteric title and a date.  This led me to reflect on how the Museum of London exhibition, for me, made itself far more accessible to a wider audience by including more information in its captions, and a narrative through the exhibition.  This meant that those interested in photography from an aesthetic point of view were still able to appreciate the photography, but so, also, were people with a general interest in London's history.  Perhaps a photography expert would disagree with me and would have preferred the Museum of London exhibition to have been more like 'Another London', but this was my feeling. 

One other negative point about Another London was that, as I observed a wheelchair user make her way around the exhibition, the photographs were hung at the eye level of an adult standing upright and were therefore hardly terribly accessible in that way either.

These things aside, I enjoyed the Another London exhibition, I enjoyed seeing photographs of London through the ages, I liked the way many of them caught the changing atmospheres of London, and I know enough about London history myself to still be able to grasp a little of the 'social history' interest that I desired from it.  A strong point in its favour, I felt, was the webpage about the exhibition, featuring two 'TateShots' videos of the photographers talking about their work, what inspired them, why they chose the subjects they did, etc.  This underlined once again the fact that I'm definitely someone who learns by hearing and listening, but also provided what I felt the captions lacked in terms of context and explanation behind some of the photographs. So 10/10 for TateShots!

I would certainly recommend the exhibition for a pootle around if you're interested in such things, although the £10 entry fee might possibly put me off, especially if I was short of time (I got in free - the perks of being a museum professional!)

Labels: , ,