I love making connections in museums, to people, new ideas and concepts. Last month I was sitting in a debate on the ‘Future of Civic Museums’ at the V&A, I was sitting at the back, the casual observer, tweeting my heart out (no change there then). In amongst the questions of funding, diversity and the role of museums in civic society up pops a reference to John Ruskin and it was to John Ruskin I was turning my attention after the debate with an early evening preview of John Ruskin ‘The Power of Seeing’ at Two Temple Place.
The Two Temple Place guide refers to Ruskin as an artist, art critic, educator and social thinker, and whilst he was passionate in his belief that all should have access to mind-opening beauty, the V&A didn’t actually fit into that vision. According to current V&A director Tristram Hunt,1 Ruskin believed the V&A to be –
“Confused, vulgar and deeply antagonistic to his (Ruskin’s) aesthetic principles”
It seems the V&A was not the only thing to antagonise Ruskin, as the Two Temple Place exhibition demonstrates with much humour –
Fifteen things heartily loathed by John Ruskin –
Being photographed – “They’ve been doing photographs of me again, and I am an orangutan as usual, and am in despair. I thought with my beard I was beginning to be just the least bit nice to look at, I would give up half my books for a new profile.”
I think it is safe to assume Ruskin wouldn’t be a fan of the selfie if he were alive today, but I wonder what he would make of Two Temple Place?
Ruskin believed museums should be a safe place for beauty and that is what Two Temple Place is to me. I would recommend you visit all day long. Not only completely free, the 1895 neo-gothic mansion is stunning and always worth a look. From the dark wood panelled rooms to the glorious staircase with its ebony columns and the beautiful stained glass, there is so much to see, enjoy and take a moment away from busy lives.
Two Temple Place’s exhibition programme is always intriguing, bringing regional collections to London to showcase publicly owned collections. ‘The Power of Seeing’ exhibition delves into Ruskin’s life and loves (as well as his pet hates) in particular his passion for JMW Turner.
Partnering with Museums Sheffield and the Guild of St. George the exhibition offers us over 190 paintings, drawings, plaster casts, manuscripts and minerals to illustrate Ruskin’s attitude to beauty, culture and society.
The first thing I noticed and loved on my visit was the tone of the interpretation. After a long day of listening to a museum debate the last thing I felt like was visiting a museum exhibition. But the friendly, conspiratorial, and chatty text felt like a catch up with a friend over a cuppa. Not dry or boasting of knowledge I didn’t have, but friendly and welcoming.
It made me relax, I watched an elderly couple walking hand in hand round the first room. I chatted to a lovely volunteer and I felt the day slip away. I fell in love with the ‘Buffer Girls’ something about that girl’s stare is mesmerising, what is she thinking?
The heart of the display is from the Guild of St. George, founded by Ruskin in 1871. The Guild’s Sheffield collection comes from Ruskin’s St. George’s Museum in Walkley, a village on the rural edge of Sheffield which is now housed in the Millennium Gallery at Museums Sheffield. Ruskin’s museum for the people was there to teach beauty to those who had been denied it. He wanted to give all a chance to see beauty in nature and craft and appreciate it.
He strongly believed in the education role of museums, in social justice and equality. As the guide to the exhibition states –
“Britain was neglecting the most basic human needs in pursuit of money, leaving the working population of its cities in squalor”2
Ruskin’s love of nature and appreciation of our environment are all concerns that echo so strongly in contemporary society. For a man who was born 200 years ago this all feels very now and of this moment.
On a day that I spent contemplating the very nature of what a civic museum is and should be I can think of no place better to have gone. Two Temple Place is a beautiful oasis, a place to cleanse the soul and hope for a better tomorrow.
John Ruskin – The Power of Seeing is on at Two Temple Place from 26th January – 22 April 2019. It is free. For more details on opening times and events please see the website.
1 – Paul Mellon Lecture – Ruskin and the idea of the Museum, Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, 24th October 2018 https://britishart.yale.edu/multimedia-video/26/8009
2 – John Ruskin – The Power of Seeing, Catalogue. Two Temple Place, 2019