It is ‘Museum Week‘ on Twitter and I have something special planned, a “MashUp Review” of two very different exhibitions. I know what you are thinking! It can’t be done. I must be crazy! But these two seemingly very different exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the British Museum compliment each other rather well. They have brought out the best and worst in each other. By visiting both on the same day it has brought into sharp relief what it is to experience an exhibition. How it makes you feel, how engaged you are, how you can be transported, stimulated, challenged in your thinking and perceptions, and how your emotions come into play.
At the Royal Academy I visited ‘Sensing Spaces – Architecture Re-imagined’; near the end of its run I have heard such great things about this exhibition I couldn’t allow it to pass without experiencing it myself. Then on to the latest British Museum blockbuster – ‘The Vikings – Life and Legend’. Just opened in their new exhibition space, I have heard mixed reviews and am keen to make up my own mind.
I am excited to see the new Sainsbury Wing at the British Museum, this vast new addition, the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre is allowing them to display a full size Viking war ship – Roskilde 6. How will this new space enhance the exhibitions they put on? I want to think about not just the Vikings and their legacy but how the architecture and design of the physical space where the objects are placed can impact on the experience as a whole.
This is where the Royal Academy exhibition really comes into play, ‘Sensing Spaces’ is about the nature of physical spaces, their power to stimulate the intellect and emotions. They invited architects and commissioned them to provide architecture as art. But the crucial difference is making art that you can interact with, add to, walk up and down, touch, play with, sniff, feel and sense.
It was stunning. I loved it. Here is architecture infused with a desire to connect with the human spirit. From observing young and old in the near two hours I spent visiting and revisiting the exhibits, they succeeded and excelled. From Diébédo Francis Kéré’s visual child-like portal that allows you to choose a straw and add to the installation, to Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s wooden ascent to Royal Academy heaven. His stairways give you the means to reach for the heavens, and angels are revealed in all their glory.
Using bamboo and soft lights, Kengo Kuma aims to break down materials to particles and fragments and then re-combine them. You can sense this in the way one look gives a random haphazard view with no structure or shape but as I step to the side, patterns and form appear. Initially the darkness of these rooms are disorientating, it is hard to discern the edges, you feel you might trip and you are not sure where the exhibition goes next, but the inner room is a safe and warm womb-like sanctuary. Once you have spent time in there, your eyes adjust, the darkness and muffled sounds enclose you. The bamboo structure reaches round protecting. When you emerge from the inner sanctum the darkness is no longer unknown, it is familiar, Kuma strikes the perfect balance between comfort and intimacy.
The exhibition is designed to allow you to branch off from a central hub, there is no start and end but a free flow from room to room. Even so, there is some direction, no doubt primarily for safety, discrete arrows point you up and down wooden stairs, Li Xiaodong’s wooden forest has an entrance and exit but when lost in its tree branch walls you can twist and turn, lose yourself until you can come upon the secret stone garden.
I sit and watch the video accompanying the exhibition, it makes me think about the installations, how I have reacted to them, so much so that I return to smell the tatami security of Kuma’s sensual approach to architecture and see the doorway which I completely missed when viewing Kéré’s work. I could have spent all day strolling from room to room, watching the engaged interplay between the young and old. Ultimately ‘Sensing Spaces’ tells us and shows us that architecture connects us to time, place and people and so it should be with the exhibition space, perhaps more than any other space. We react consciously and unconsciously to the room we enter, it heightens our senses and brings exhibition objects to life in front of us.
In this state of heightened sensitivity I arrive at the British Museum, the Viking replica boat in the courtyard outside is a small teaser to what lies inside. Whenever I walk into the Great Court it never fails to blow me away, the space and light, the curves and lines, it is a grand, inspiring statement about what the British Museum is and what it aims to do.
I follow the signs to the ‘Vikings’, I am excited and impatient to begin. As I wait to enter the new gallery I cast a glance left and right, I appreciate the architecture of the new building, the light and glass makes you realise you are leaving one space and entering a new one.
I crane my neck left and right to see past the queue of heads, I wait and wait, it seems the Vikings are a victim of their own success. So popular is their tale that I can’t get near the beginning of the story. As I shuffle in, there is nothing to read in front of me, I make out a case but it will be a while before I get near it. I have opted for the interactive audio guide, at least it is something to listen to while I wait, but in the entrance there is an external audio of Old Norse being spoken, I find it distracting even when I turn up my audio guide. The staff helpfully tell us to move into the space, we don’t have to queue, but if you want to see what is in those first few display cases there is no option but to wait. The accompanying text for the first object is directly below the object and you can’t read it unless directly in front of the case. I shuffle and shuffle. I look round, I am not uplifted or inspired, I am in a dark grey space, grey walls, grey floors. I shuffle and shuffle.
I break free and wander, I can’t seem to get near anything. Perhaps I need to be more like a Viking –
“They journeyed boldly; went far for gold” – Gripsholm rune-stone c 1050
Perhaps I need to be more aggressive and raid each case, stealing a glance. I get near the Hunterston brooch, it is very impressive, the fine craftsmanship, the mix of Viking and Scottish art. The back is inscribed with runes, added 200 years after the piece was made. But to see the back I have to lean across the edge of the display, I can’t stand directly behind the brooch and admire the different styles. I shuffle some more and notice pictures on the walls of reindeer, I would have much preferred a large version of the Hunterston brooch on the wall then I could see the craftsmanship and admire the skill without the shuffling and waiting. The interactive guide is good in this respect as it allows you to zoom in on particular objects, it is just a shame you have to pay on top of the ticket price to gain from the technology.
It does thin out a bit as I go through the exhibition. The next section has the most amazing gold neck ring, it fires the imagination on a stunning orange background. You can’t fail to be impressed not only by the wealth on show but the sheer strength to walk round with a 2kg piece of bling on your neck. The Vikings reputation for power, strength, and wealth comes from objects such as this. There is also surprisingly beauty and craftsmanship, a tale not so often told.
Finally you turn a corner and you see Roskilde 6, you are now in a massive…..warehouse, for want of a better word. The vast size is impressive as only a large space can be. The longest Viking ship ever found is impressive, but when you first walk in you can’t see any of the original timbers, only 20% of the original ship survives, but you can clearly see the steel structure designed to hold them and simulate the full size of the ship. I am impressed, but I am not blown away.
Recently I watched the ‘BBC Culture Show’ special with Andrew Graham Dixon on Viking Art, he visited the Viking Ship Museum in Osl0, Norway. There is a section of the programme when he visits the Oseberg ship, in a large space but strangely still an intimate space. It is hard on the television to get a real sense of an object and space but for me that had the wow factor, so beautiful, the building, the exhibition space and the sinuous lines of the ship. The narrator talks of how he felt when seeing the ship for the first time, for him it was like a child seeing a dinosaur skeleton for the first time. It was that powerful a connection. I didn’t have that connection at the British Museum but I wanted to.
What did blow me away having spent the last 10 weeks learning about conservation and cleaning techniques was the 10,000 hours spent conserving the timbers to Roskilde 6, the 10 years they spent in Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and the 5 years they spent being freeze-dried. Amazing human endeavour to preserve the past, to enable it to travel and be placed in front of me. When I think of all that, I can’t help but think that this space, these high ceilings, it needs to do more to enhance the objects placed inside.
In the video at the end of ‘Sensing Spaces’ at the Royal Academy, the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma speaks of designing buildings and the importance of what they call ‘ma’, it is the void or space in a design. It is not simply the space enclosed by walls and roof, it is much, much, more. It is the space that you experience, the interplay of light and dark, the change of time, it is temperature and smell. It is what takes place in your imagination. When an exhibition is created these objects have to exist in this space, they need to enhance each other, and for me the British Museum’s new exhibition centre fails to do this.
I remember the old exhibition space in the reading room in the centre of the Great Court, I didn’t enjoy it the first time I went. I’m a librarian after all and it is on the verge of sacrilegious to put books behind walls, a library should be a library. Over time and exhibitions I came to love the space, my footsteps impatiently seeking out the very heart of the museum. It felt like they had kept the most precious items in this inner sanctum, the stories told in the exhibition amplified by the stories held on the pages round the walls. You would forget where you were, then look up and see the glint of gold and the pale blue grandeur of the reading room ceiling and it would remind you. I won’t forget walking into the hushed darkness and seeing the Terracotta Warriors, their proud silent watch mesmerising. Their quiet power is an image burned on my retinas and my brain. The space and objects co-existed and the experience was magical.
But the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre is so new, it is untried and untested. It is like when you move into a new house, you have to live with the walls and floors, exist in the space before you can see the potential and know how you can make it yours. I don’t doubt the space will become something amazing in the future but for now, it is not enough to have a large space and put a large object in it. They need to think on the ‘ma’, sense the space and bring history to life.
Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy runs till 6 April, for ticket prices and availability please see the website
The Vikings – Life and Legend runs until 22 June, for ticket prices and availability please see the website