Dinosaurs and Pianos

Well, I said in my previous post, that art rambling was on the back burner until the Spring. But I’m nothing if not inconsistent and having spent the day wandering around an imaginary museum in my head in the guise of an otherwordly Curator, it seems only fair to pen a few words about the places that inspired that story.

As much as I love the Tates, the Baltic, the National Gallery and the NPG, it’s the smaller museums that hold a real fascination for me these days. Partially I suppose it’s because the restrictions within which they have to work – lack of funds, corporate sponsorship, Tim Marlow wandering around them pointing at things – lead to collections of works and objects that I haven’t seen a million times in textbooks.

In these small collections you find works, often by the big name artists who adorn the walls of the aforementioned ‘Temples of Culture’ but not the ones that are considered the ‘Greatest Hits’, here you’ll find the ‘B-sides’ if you like, but no less interesting than the works that gave their names to movements, sold for eyewatering prices at auctions or generated enough critical debate to swathe the planet several times in academic gobbledigook. And, of course, here you’ll find work by the unknowns, local artists who never made a great splash on the international scene, never founded movements or wrote manifestos; artists and craftsmen who made a living creating objects for the people and places outside the front doors of their homes and studios.

For the artist, art historian or critic such collections steal our safety net of critical texts and theoretical tracts learnt by rote at college and leave us dangling precariously with only our eyes, our own opinions and (whisper it) our feelings to cling to.  It’s an experience that refreshes, excites and reminds us why we love art in the first place, before the likes of Greenberg and Gombrich got in the way.

But what I really love more than anything about the slightly snootily termed ‘Regional’ museums is the unexpected juxtapositions that a number of factors conspire to create. With restricted space, and the imperative of their remits demanding the coverage of a broad range of subjects, artifacts from so many different disciplines crowd together, vying for space and competing for attention. Geology crashes into Archaeology, Design wrestles with Social History, Fashion, Art and Palaeontology merge together in a joyous dazzling bundle, leaving visitors’ heads spinning at the sudden, unexpected shifts in focus. These strange collisions fizz with inspiration in ways that the Surrealist precursor Le Comte de Lautréamont would have approved of when he wrote of the beauty to be found in “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”

A case in point. On my first visit to the Bristol City Art Gallery and Museum, I was aimlessly bumbling about, making notes on some Impressionist paintings in the collection I’d never seen before when I turned a corner into a balcony space that was filled with dinosaur skeletons and antique pianos.

Let me say that again. Dinosaur skeletons and antique pianos.

I broke into a broad grin and burst out laughing, not with disdain but sheer unbridled joy. The audacity and eccentricity of the combination of two such apparently anachronistic categories of object appealed to my sense of humour, my love of the absurd and my taste for the bizzarre. The eight-year old me that’s never far from the surface when I’m making art or writing was doing backflips of delight, squealing and giggling. Dinosaurs and pianos – I was instantly smitten and spent the rest of the day grinning, my mind bubbling over with ideas and stories. Even writing about it now at 1am on a Tuesday morning when I should be tucked up in bed poking my partner in the ribs in an attempt to stop him snoring, I’m energised by the memory, grinning like a Cheshire Cat I can still taste the exhilaration of that encounter a few years down the line.

But I must come back down to earth, beacuse there is a serious point to all of this. As austerity cuts bite into areas of culture that aren’t deemed commercially viable,  small museums need all the visitors they can get, and you know what? At the time of writing, the vast majority of them are FREE! You can walk in off the street without handing over any hard-earned shiny pennies and spend ten minutes, a couple of hours or a whole day getting inspired, entertained and, unfashionably, educated.   So take your kids to see dinosaurs and pianos. Arrange to meet your mates there before the pub to see neolithic axe heads next to ball gowns. Take your parents next time you meet them for lunch to look at maps next to old bathtubs. If you’re mad enough, drag complete strangers in off the street shouting “Look! Vintage planes and fossils! How fantastic is that?”

Um, actually no, don’t do the last thing, you’re likely to get arrested or injured but you get my point. All over the country there are eccentric little treasure troves of ideas and stories waiting to be told. Archives of wonders that are curated, collected, cared for and loved by passionate people, many of whom do so for little or no reward but that need our support.

Go. As soon and as often as you can. Get on their mailing lists. Tell people about them. Go again. And if you find a combination better than dinosaur and pianos, let me know because I’d love to see it.

(I had hoped to include a link here to a list of regional museums in the UK, but it seems that such a thing doesn’t exist, not even on the website of the Department of Culture Media and Sport, so you’ll have to get your googling fingers working to find your local public museum or gallery. Or even better you could email the DCMS and ask them why they don’t have such a list in easy reach on their site, perhaps I’m being naive but I would have thought that was in their remit somehow. Just saying.

Of course if there is such a thing out there somewhere and I’m just being too inept to see it please let me know and I’ll stick it up as soon as poss.)

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