Author Archives: curatoria

About curatoria

I've spent my career in museums from Nottinghamshire to the London Borough of Brent and now in Kent. I'm driven by the belief that museums can open doors and give people the most special of experiences.

A funny old year.

A year ago tomorrow, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a shocking and frightening diagnosis but I was lucky in the respect that although aggressive, mine was a common cancer which meant I was swept up by the NHS and taken through a well-rehearsed routine of chemotherapy, operation, radiotherapy and follow-up treatment. The last 12 months have been unpleasant, stressful and not something you’d want to do twice but I’ve never had any sense it wasn’t the best the people treating my illness could do for me. I wasn’t brave, I didn’t battle, I’m not a survivor. I sat back and let the amazing hospital staff do their stuff.

My boyfriend, Richard, looked after me as well as working full time and it was very hard for him. I was asleep for getting on for 7 months and when I was awake I was grumpy and nauseous and frankly rough looking! One weekend I got an infection and ended up in Casualty until 4am. I went back to sleep once I got onto the ward but he had to go to work. , Despite being the noticeable part of treatment, my hair falling out wasn’t the worst bit (although shaving my head on Christmas Day was not the kind of present I wanted) rather, the many side effects which could only be described as disgusting. I’ll spare you the details. Worse was feeling old and ugly and depressed. I had no energy and found it difficult to walk the shortest distances. On one trip to friends in Brighton, I burst into tears in the street and screamed at Richard because I just felt so frustrated at being unable to walk up a hill to their house.
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On the plus side, everyone I knew was so kind and supportive. My family rang me daily, I spoke more to people than I had for years. Friends on Twitter kept me entertained, in touch and even sent gifts and cards. It made a huge difference to my morale.

A year ago, I couldn’t imagine that I’d be spending the anniversary running a seminar day for Museum Studies students at Bath Spa Uni but that’s where I’ll be tomorrow, doing what I love – getting excited about museums. Twelve months on I’ve started a exciting new job and am off on a glamorous holiday. It’s been an interesting year but you’ll excuse me if I get on with living now.

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Today’s quick question- Is there ever a wrong time for taxidermy?

This photo was taken through the window of a closed cafe at Cape St Vincent in Portugal. It’s the most south westerly part of Europe-the end of the world as it was once thought. Personally I like to think these animals are on wheels for what could be better than drinking coffee and having a cheeky custard tart as a zebra rolls past?

I realise it may not be to everyone’s taste to be surrounded by dead animals as they eat their burger but I guess it’s just horses for courses!

Hello Sailor?

Here’s a question for you. True or false? The Dutch Navy once sailed into British waters and destroyed a good part of the British Navy, captured the English flagship and occupied a British town.

The captured Royal Charles. Jeronymus van Diest II

Well, yes it is true. During the 2nd Anglo-Dutch War, in the summer of 1667, the Dutch fleet under Admiral de Ruyter sailed from the Channel and up the River Medway in Kent. They burned the fleet, captured Sheerness and captured two British vessels. The Dutch success came as a result of their daring combined with British mistakes, laxity and the downright treason of a couple of Medway pilots who guided the Dutch. In Netherlands this event is known as the Battle of the Medway. Here we downgrade it to the Chatham Raid! Dutch pupils learn about the event in school and many visit Chatham to see where it took place. Where you will not find any mention of this event, nor indeed any other naval or maritime history is on the National Curriculum. I know, of course, that the curriculum in English schools is fairly wide ranging and should teachers wish, maritime history can be slotted in to one of the areas of study. However, as a nation of islanders, we British are generally not well-informed about our maritime past. Throughout our history we have sailed; we have fished, we have defended our home and been the aggressor abroad, we have explored and raced and taken the ferry to our holidays or a new life somewhere else. One of our iconic landmarks can only be seen from the sea – from land the White Cliffs of Dover are yellow and grey but viewed from the deck of a ship in the channel, they are most definitely white!

Thankfully we do have many great maritime museums and collections. From Chatham Historic Dockyard (where I first learned about the Chatham Raid when I became Collections Manager there) to the Scottish Fisheries Museum, Great Yarmouth’s Time and Tide to anyone of the RNLI Heritage Trust museums around our coast there are as many museums as there are types of maritime experience and life. There is also a fleet of historic vessels from HMS Belfast and SS Great Britain to the less well-known and glamorous but no less important workhorses of the sea such as Advance – formerly the Victualling Inshore Craft 24 or the Steam Drifter, Lydia Eva. And you don’t want to get me started on Lighthouses or inland waterways… These museums do more than preserve stories of a past way of life, they keep alive trades, skills and traditions. So next time you’re at the coast, make a point of checking out your local maritime museum.

I think it would be fitting to end where we began, back in Chatham. In the 1990s, the Dockyard Trust discovered buried under the floor of an old workshop, what appeared to be the complete skeleton of an 18th century ship. The mystery of why the ship was buried instead of timbers being reused or destroyed as was usual, we may never know but we do finally know that the ship was the Namur, an important naval vessel on which anti-slavery pioneer Olaudah Equiano once served. The Dockyard Trust is raising funds for a conservation project on the Namur. If you want to help or find out more about another bit of our naval history you might not know, have a look here www.chdt.org.uk

Craft workshops housing the timbers of the Namur

Greetings Pop-pickers!

Ooh would you look at that, it’s 2010! Leaving aside all the concerns of getting older which results in the years skipping by like Martine McCutcheon on her way to discuss yoghurt with a grateful nation, I thought I’d ease gently into the new year with a simple list of museum exhibitions I’m looking forward to this year.

There are a number of things you should be aware of:

  • These are in no particular order except that in which they occurred to me
  • You may notice a South East bias. That’s because I live in Kent and have to rely on public transport. There are fantastic exhibitions going on all over the country (and the surrounding ones) but it’s not a list of exhibitions I’m slightly miffed I probably won’t get to.
  • If you want deep and well-informed reasons why these are on my list and others aren’t – you’ll be disappointed. Most of them just made me think “That looks like it’ll be good”
  • Turner Contemporary at Margate is opening next year, not this or it would have been on the list for sure.

So here’s my list. Let it inspire you to make your own and get out to museum or 6 this year!

1.Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian renaissance drawings at the British Museum. (April to July)

I admire the ability to draw and love the simplicity of drawings and sketches.  This is the sort of exhibition that the BM does really well and that, combined with the chance to see work by Raphael, Jacopo (whose paintings I saw recently and loved), Mantegna and Titian means this should be a gem of an exhibition.

2. The “new” Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The backlash has begun in the letters section of the Museums Journal but I want to see for myself what’s been achieved here. The work done has been bold and looks stunning in photos but will the building outshine the displays? I hope not. The Ashmolean is one of those museums I’ve always wanted to like more than I did so let’s hope we get on better this time!

3. Stanley Spencer at No1 Smithery, the Historic Dockyard Chatham (July to December)

A little nepotistic I know since I work here but I’m not curating this exhibition and it looks like being a doozy! No1 Smithery is a brand new space and this exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s shipyard paintings from World War Two is the first time all the paintings will have been exhibited together since the 40s and will be the last time for a while as two are off to Glasgow afterwards. It’s being curated by artist Stephen Turner http://www.seafort.org/ and frankly, I’m just excited by the prospect of something this good in Medway.

(Note: Earlier I said they were off to Australia. I was getting confused and have corrected myself. Apologies.)

4. The Modern London galleries at the Museum of London (TBC Spring)

I have a big girly crush on Museum of London that dates from my youth and the photos coming out make the new displays look really exciting and fresh. I can’t wait to see the finished project even if I wish they’d stick that damn Lord Mayor’s carriage in a shed somewhere and use the space for something better. I may be in a minority there. Plus- I loved this photo project to publicise the redisplays http://bit.ly/4mN3eN

5. Tunbridge Wells Rocks  at Tunbridge Wells Museum  (February to April)

This is a mixture of art and social history. High Rocks just outside Tunbridge Wells is a strange outcrop of Sandstone which has served as home to an Iron Age community, the backdrop to TV shows (Blakes 7 or Dr Who, I forget which) as well as the courtship of many a Tunbridge Wells teenager, although it’s a lot smarter and less wild these days than when I was growing up (ahem). This exhibition will be pure nostalgia for me. What? I said this was my list! Get your own teenage reminders!

If I’ve missed anything I should really see, please do leave a comment and let me know.

Rodents discovered in Rome Art Gallery

I met these two little darlings at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. Actually, they appear in Breughel’s “Allegory of the Earth”. It was painted in 1618 and, since Guinea Pigs come from South America, I was slightly surprised to see them in such an early painting. However, I looked it up and apparently (well according to Wikipedia!)  Queen Elizabeth I had a pet Guinea Pig so these two are early immigrants. I like to think they might have been the Breughel family pets. My own Guinea Pigs, Prudence and Isabella, were unimpressed when I told them but they’re hard to please

The Galleria Doria Pamphilj is a fantastic gallery I visited for the first time recently. It’s housed in a Palazzo right on the Via del Corso in Rome and is a perfect antidote to the madness of Rome’s main shopping street. Step inside and the first thing you see is a beautiful courtyard garden which reminds you why these big houses face inwards away from the dirt and noise of the street and makes you want one of the apartments which still house smart Romans today.

The Palazzo is primarily an Art Gallery these days with an amazing private collection which includes works by Caravaggio, Titian and the aforementioned Breughel as well as sculpture, furniture and even family nick-nacks! The Doria Pamhilj family still exist and own the collection (and have issues to face over its future thanks to Italian law  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/6348571/Who-will-inherit-the-Doria-Pamphilj-familys-legacy.html ) and still live in the Palazzo at least some of the time. The paintings are numbered rather than labelled so do buy the £1 guide unless you’re an Art History expert. Galleria Doria Pamphilj may not be the slickest or the best interpreted gallery in Europe but it’s got buckets of charm and really is, to use a horrible cliché, a hidden gem.

A big box of beautiful.

The Museo Ara Pacis Augustae is controversial. It is the first modern building in the centre of Rome for 50 years and the current Mayor of the city, Gianni Alemanno, has declared his desire to see it demolished. Thankfully for the rest of us he has also said it’s not a priority. Mr Alemanno is, frankly, wrong! The Ara Pacis Museum is not some blot on the landscape but a very beautiful and sympathetic addition to the banks of the Tiber.

From the outside the building is a statement and stands out against the other buildings around it, none of which are in themselves particularly exciting while at the same time reflecting them in its glass facade. You might even argue it does a sterling job of hiding the shabby monstrosity of the Mausoleum of Augustus next door. It’s cool and sleek and, hey, it’s got a fountain outside! How Roman do you want?

However, it’s inside that this museum hits you. There is just one artefact in the main gallery – the Ara Pacis  (or Altar of Peace) itself. When I stepped through the door from reception it took a fairly large dose of self-restraint to stop me running squealing toward it. When I say altar, of course I don’t mean the cloth draped table we associate with Christianity. This is pagan pomp at its most pomp-y! It was commissioned by the Roman Emperor Augustus to commemorate pacification of western provinces (that’s France and Spain to us!) We won’t go into whose idea of peace at this stage and let the victor write the history. The gallery is glass and stone and while it’s beautiful in its own right, it also serves as a perfect backdrop for the creamy marble of the altar.

Downstairs are education areas and a temporary exhibition gallery and a small gallery telling the story of the Altar’s  discovery and restoration. If I have one criticism of the museum it is that the interpretation is separated from the Altar. If you didn’t go downstairs, you’d never learn anything about the Altar and its history. You would also miss the fantastic interactive which shows the likely colour scheme of the original. As much as I love the upstairs gallery and the beautiful altar sitting proud in the centre, I do worry that most visitors will miss this important feature.

In short, the Museo Ara Pacis Augustae is a stunning piece of architecture, inside a stunning piece of architecture. Get there before the bulldozers move in!

Who and why?

Over the coming months I’ll rambling away here about a variety of stuff but mostly my life in museums, exhibitions I’ve been to and my take on issues that affect the heritage and museums sector. The great world of the internet means I can chunter away here to my heart’s content. However, it seems polite to give you a bit more detail about who I am and what I do instead of expecting anyone to read this cold.

As you might expect, seeing as this isn’t a blog about cricket or cupcakes, museums have been my career for 17 years and my passion for even longer. I started early, doing my school work experience at Tunbridge Wells Museum. It was there in the mid-80s that I saw an exhibition of Matisse drawings which made me realise the big museums in London weren’t the only place to see cool stuff.

After doing a Classics degree in Liverpool (and enjoying a city with so much to offer) I knew that I hadn’t been wrong at 16 and that museums were where I wanted to be. After Leicester I found myself living in Nottinghamshire in the small town of Mansfield. Frankly, I didn’t like Mansfield, but it had the saving grace of a great museum run by a young and inspirational Curator called Liz Weston. Liz taught me huge amounts about museums and the real world which no training course ever could and she let me make mistakes (and no, enough time has not passed to own up to most of them!)

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Mansfield Museum

Jobs followed in Watford and the London Borough of Brent where we took the museum from the Grange in the middle of a three lane roundabout to Willesden Library Centre. You don’t get to be part of a brand new museum many times in a career and the Brent Museum was the best, most fun, most terrifying and worst time of my life! After 4 years of hard but great teamwork we created a museum I am still very proud of (even if the display case in Politics was rather traditional in the end).

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The entrance gallery, Brent Museum

After a spell as Collections Manager at the magnificent Historic Dockyard at Chatham in Kent, I came to Wiltshire 2 years ago to become Conservation and Heritage Manager looking after the Museums Advisory Service, three teams of Conservators and the County Archaeology team. Here we work very much with small, independent museums, many of which are volunteer run. This has been a new experience for me and both challenging for someone used to taking certain shared norms in professional museums but also very good for challenging my assumptions and learning new ideas .

Wherever I am, my passion has always been for sharing histories. Our museums, large and small are uniquely placed to share experiences, objects and knowledge in a way that no other organisation can. They are unique and special and, in case I get too pompous, they’re also great fun. New media are giving us new ways of spreading that fun on what seems like a daily basis so who knows where we’ll be in a few years. New opportunities meeting a recession of the like I’ve never seen in my career means we live in interesting times.

There you go. That’s me. So, please, come with me. Feel free to comment and especially if you agree with every word! If you want daily utterances I’m on Twitter http://twitter.com/vickybarlo Back soon…