Saturday, 15 February 2014

Lost Museums

From about the age of seven through to when I was ten or eleven my dad used to take me to London, to visit a museum and to take-in a film. I used to think of it as an annual, summertime event, even though it only happened three or four times (and might well have happened during the Easter break). The film was always the latest James Bond saga, or else something equally spectacular, like one of the Alistair MacLean adaptations (Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra, When Eight Bells Toll). But before we saw the chosen film, with its excess of death, testosterone, and weaponry, with its unproblematic distribution of good and bad (with Nazis or Nazis-equivalents), we did our educational duty and spent time wandering around the Natural History Museum, or the Science Museum, or the Victoria and Albert Museum (or was it just the Science Museum each time?). I only have a dim memory of those days and how they felt. I was young enough to hold my dad’s hand, I think, and I loved the sense of ritual of those days but I probably felt slightly awkward too – I was not used to spending a whole day with him. But they were precious times. (There was always the worry that he would quiz me about school. Later, when these ‘father and son’ trips stopped, there was always the worry that being alone with him would be an occasion for him to talk to me about ‘the facts of life’. Awkward.)
The museum visit was a bit of an ordeal – but it was a penance for the main events, food, fizzy drinks, and an action film. There is something about museums – especially those museums in Kensington – that weighs on young visitors, however enthused they are about seeing displays about evolution, combustion engines, and such like. I think it must be something to do with the quality of the air: it induces a sort of sluggish languor. Perhaps the cost of an environment fit for preserving museum specimens, old books, art objects and so on, is an atmosphere that drains the liveliness from the living. Even now, as an adult overly enraptured by the past, someone who has managed to visit five museums in one day in Ghent, I still feel that sense of grinding ennui when visiting museums, galleries and libraries. The only solution I can think of is to rush round them as if the place is about to close.
Of course I could imagine museums closing for the night, but I couldn’t imagine a museum closing down, forever. How would that work: the institutions dedicated to preservation would of course be preserved otherwise there would be little point in their endeavour. The museums in Kensington have for the most part been preserved, but as I grew older and trips with my dad became relegated to the past I learnt that museums could have a precarious life. The Museum of Mankind, for instance, only existed for 27 years, from 1970-1997. But even more fleeting was the life of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, which only lasted from 2002 to 2008. More comforting are museums like the Whitby Museum that has been going since 1823, though not in the same building. It is wonderful mainly because it has refused to pander to changing museum fashions. It is, in many respects, a museum exhibit within the vast imaginary museum of museums. Such a vast imaginary institution has clearly lost some exhibits along the way, all the more reason to cherish Whitby’s tenacious displays, with their hand-written cards and casings that allow you to weigh a Narwhal wales’ tusk in your hands.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Camouflage Inspector

            I once caught a snippet of a radio programme where a man was describing his job as a camouflage inspector. He described how he taught troops effective camouflage methods, and detailed the sorts of things that they could use to camouflage themselves. Then came the inspection: camouflaged units of troops would be sent out to go to ground in the local countryside. They would have to disguise themselves as best they could, deploying all the skills they had and using the available resources around them. The camouflage inspector would then go to the top of a nearby hill and look out to see if he could see the troops. Failure was simple: if you were seen, then the camouflage was not complete. Success, though, was much more precarious. If there was nothing to be seen this meant that either the camouflage was completely successful, or that the unit had wandered off in another direction or simply taken themselves off to the nearest pub. I have always thought that the perils of interpretation are glimpsed in the work of the camouflage inspector: all is fine when there is something to see, where a location, a presence is given away, but what is to be made of blankness, absence, and silence. Given that so much of twentieth century art seems to want to avoid meaning and content, to purposefully embrace the blank, then interpretation becomes a perilous task.
            In the Second World War a group of English surrealists ended up becoming camouflage instructors and camouflage designers. One of the leaders of camouflaging was the English surrealist painter and ‘best-pal-of-Picasso’, Roland Penrose, and he was responsible for training a slightly younger generation of surrealist including the likes of Julian Trevelyan in camouflage techniques. For Trevelyan the war was decisive in making the sorts of surrealism that had seemed so dangerous and urgent in the 1930, appear both impossible and ludicrous: how could the sort of surrealist juxtaposition (sewing machines on operating tables) compete with real world juxtapositions produced by high-explosive bombs that opened up houses, ripped apart bodies, and concretised Marx’s sense that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. But in his path from surrealism to something quieter Trevelyan worked as a camouflage artists disguising small military instillations such as pill boxes with an aesthetic straight out of the Romantic tradition: pill boxes became picturesque ruins or Romany caravans. Presumably Luftwaffe pilots and navigators (or some of them) saw an English landscape peppered with the quaint and evocative, rather than a landscape in the grip of total mobilisation.
            The task of interpretation may well be easier when one thing is disguised as another. This is, after all, what allegory is. Perhaps the English surrealists, during the war, became specialists in allegorical camouflage.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Sputnik Balloon Seller

This photograph was taken on 21 December 1957. When the photograph was taken it had been 12 years since the end of the Second World War. It is an odd photograph, and without some accompanying information you could be forgiven for thinking it was a collage of sorts with some improbably spiky shapes added to a fairly ordinary photograph of people milling around a street corner. But there is no artifice to the photograph (though plenty, perhaps, in the photograph). The man with the light coat in the foreground is selling a balloon to the man with the darker coat who is also holding a bag. The balloons must be filled with helium and the spikes that stick out of them are meant to represent the Sputnik satellite, denoting radio aerials that were used to send signals back from the real Sputnik satellite to Mother Russia in its Soviet garb.
We are at the junction of three streets: Broad Weir, Merchant Street and Castle Mill Street. What we can see is an older Bristol that is about to be transformed: the buildings we can see on the left of the picture will be pulled down to make way for new shops and shopping precincts, and eventually for shopping malls. On the right we can see the massive corrugated iron fences that were used to fence-off bombsites. The bombing of Bristol effectively changed the shape of the city, making new spaces for development while leaving previously thriving streets to fall into decline. My great-grandfather had a haberdashery shop in Old Market Street; it now sells second hand electric guitars and amplifiers and science-fiction paraphernalia. It is rare to see a customer in there.    
What, I wonder, was going through the mind of the purchaser of a Sputnik balloon in Bristol on this day in December in 1957? Had the Cold War infected this man who was clearly old enough to have played some part in the war? Or did he still feel a huge sense of comradely spirit for our Soviet Allies who lost so many lives during the war, fighting for our freedom as much as theirs? And what about the satellite, pointing towards the stars: was he filled with optimism for what some would learn to call the ‘white heat of technology’ leading us all into a starry future? And what did he feel about the fences pointing towards a slow rebuilding of Bristol and elsewhere? Was this heading towards the stars or to something more pedestrian in the shape of Woolworths, Marks and Spencer, and W. H. Smiths?