The Horniman Museum for me is all about memories, tradition and family. I remember trips with my parents, I take my children, we go often, we spend time together and make new memories all the time. The new Horniman exhibition may be all about Romania but it is also about tradition, family, what it means to fit in, what it means to belong, what you need around you to keep those treasured memories alive when you have travelled far from home. I was late to the opening of this exhibition but luckily I didn’t miss the shot of țuică on my way in. Too late to head straight to the exhibition, I listened to the speeches of welcome and explanation of why the Romanian collection at the Horniman Museum is so much more than objects and stories, but the heart of a strong relationship that stretches back to a Romanian exhibition the Horniman put on in 1957.
The exhibition comes in two parts, the old and the new. There are objects from the home, stunning textiles, rich, vibrant costumes and colourful ceramics. Alongside these, a contemporary photographic display capturing not only images of Romanians living in London today, but also very honest thoughts on their varied experiences in the capital.
I first looked at the pottery, lovely bright colours, the pottery stamps laid out remind me of my Mother who has a similar stamp to mark her own pottery. There was one large grey pot that intrigued me, it was not a favourite of the lady next to me, she preferred the bright ‘joyous’ colours of the others on display. But it reminded me of the Roman pottery I have repacked at the Museum of London, it is such a hands on personal intimate skill, making a pot. It is something I have shared with my Mother and my daughter, I love thinking of the time taken to make and decorate a piece, its treasured place in the family home.
Highlights for me are the brightly coloured sheepskin waist coats, their intricate designs are fascinating, highly decorative, the research into traditional costume, why it is important and how it is has been used throughout the years as a tool of patriotism is brought out in the text accompanying the exhibits. Many of the guests on this opening night are wearing traditional costumes and the bright colours stand out vividly against my rather dull contemporary black dress.
What I loved on this special evening was the feeling of celebration of Romanian culture, relationships, traditions, families and heritage. As I walked round it was fantastic to hear the Romanian language being spoken around me as guests met, chatted and mingled, the objects meaning so much to them. I enjoyed feeding off their connections. Many of those in the photographs were there on the night, I took great joy in seeing them line up proudly next to their portraits for friends and family to take a snap of their own. It was as if ‘Harry Potter-like’ pictures had come to life, the characters had been set free from the freeze frame, their living breathing selves a reminder that lives and experiences are ever-changing never stuck in one moment. First impressions are just that, a first and often immediate reaction, they change and give way to new thoughts and feelings.
I was struck by one of the comments from an electrician who had been in London 10 years, although he saw his future here in London, he didn’t feel he belonged here. It made me sad in a way, it made me think about what you need, to feel you belong, to feel at home. Is it family and friends? A permanent place to live? It was a shame that the portrait of George Iacobsescu, one of the most successful Romanian business men in the world, had no personal comment under his portrait. It was a shame it read more like a CV, I really wanted to know his first impressions of London when he came to live here in 1988.
It really is the right time to have an exhibition like this, with immigration in the news constantly, opinions seem so often set in stone before all the true facts are considered. It is important to listen to individual voices, to really see what it means to leave behind everything you know, everything you have, to reach for something different, sometimes something better and sadly sometimes settling for something worse. If I left my home and my family what would I take with me? What would remind me of the yearly traditions, what would cement those links so that however far they were stretched, they would still remain strong? Maybe a piece of pottery I made with my Mum, maybe my Dad’s wedding waistcoat, a blanket that all of my children have been swaddled in. Objects are never just objects, they are wrapped in our perceptions, they are triggers for memories, physical reactions and conversation. As I watch the guests tonight absorbed by colours and shapes, textures and images, I can feel all those things coming from them. It brings this exhibition to life for me.
In revisiting their Romanian collection, the Horniman have got in contact with the modern-day villages where many of the items have come from, they have talked to contemporary artists about the traditional techniques as well as underpinning the curation with academic study and scientific review. You feel there is much more to this exhibition than just objects and images, there is a stronger resonance to their display. The exhibition will run for a year, a long time, there have been outreach projects in particular with ‘Object in Focus’, taking hand decorated Romanina eggs to libraries in Lewisham.
I love the Horniman for telling these stories, for embracing different cultures, for learning about them and sharing that knowledge with us, for celebrating difference and promoting understanding. It feels in today’s world we need this more than ever. When you come to the Horniman, come to Revisiting Romania, see the objects, textiles and portraits, enjoy a collection that sits at the very heart of the Horniman Museum. Listen to those voices and be proud of a London that is open to all, however far you have travelled, for however long you stay. Be proud of a London that allows different traditions to flourish, because like this exhibition it brings colour, life and joy to all of our lives.
Revisiting Romania at the Horniman Museum is free and runs from 4th October 2014 to 6th September 2015 for more information please visit the website here