I’d been getting restless so it was time for a day trip to visit another of the new contemporary galleries popping up all over the country. This time it was Colchester, only a hop skip and a jump away by Mini. My sat-nav, Sean with his gorgeous Irish accent, has a real thing for the M25 and by deciding to ignore him and following my own geographical instincts the journey took a tad longer than it normally would have done. Sorry Sean. My route, however, enabled us to enjoy the scenery and the pretty country lanes of Essex and we arrived excited to see what Colchester has to offer.
Colchester. Own photograph.
Colchester is a hill town with typically English characteristics – a castle, a river, a market place and a strict Roman grid plan surrounded by a town wall. It’s very walkable – in fact, we easily managed to see everything within the day and still get out in time to miss rush hour!
Colchester Castle. Own photograph.
Our first stop was the town’s Norman castle, built during the reign of William the Conqueror. The interior doesn’t do justice to the excellent condition of the building and its impressive build. It is designed solely with children in mind; OK, fair enough, they are the museum’s bread and butter but, here it speaks down to them with patronising and dark displays and is done in a way that practically excludes adults. Wasted opportunity #1.
Inside the Castle. Own photograph.
A neatly manicured park sweeps down from the Castle to the River Colne and rather non-descript Roman wall. The boating lake had dried up and was rather smelly and we hurried on. Although the park itself is pretty, this certainly counts as wasted opportunity #2.
The River Colne. Own photograph.
The town’s Natural History Museum, that we happened on by chance, is housed within a pretty church. Unlike the castle, entry is free so it’s worth a quick peek if you’re in the area. The churchyard is overgrown and has been left to deteriorate, a common theme in Colchester – wasted opportunity #3. It feels a bit like a town that time has left behind and is in desperate need of some TLC. There are some English Heritage properties in town too but everything is so badly signed that you need a degree in orientation and a great deal of common sense to get around. Oh yes, #4.
The churchyard of the Natural History Museum. Own photograph.
After lunch, it was time to visit firstsite, our main reason for this trip. Dubbed the Golden Banana, firstsite (annoyingly, with no capitals or spaces) opened in September this year. Designed by Rafael Viñoly it was originally scheduled to open in 2008 with a projected budget of £18 million. It finally came in £10 million over budget and a few years late – not a good start. Designed as an art gallery for purposes of display, it is the strangest shape building. The curved walls do not lend themselves to conventional picture hanging and, rather than confront this ‘problem’ with ingenious ceiling hangings or sculptural installations, the curators decided to leave vast expanses of the walls bare (and boring). This space could be interesting to play with but the gallery just doesn’t make sense.
On approach, the building does look impressive with its distinctive gold colour. But, although great at first sight (excuse the pun), the building peters off into a bungalow-like extension that is tedious compared with the statement-making front elevation.
Firstsite. Own photograph.
Their current exhibition is inspired by Colchester’s history as Britain’s first city. While all the other new galleries across the UK have gone for something big to mark their openings, this exhibition gets lost in the space. It supposedly considers how history is represented and re-enacted and how art and archaeology invite us to think about everyday, functional objects as sources of information or symbols of our cultures, past and present. In this vein, the gallery will permanently exhibit the Berryfield Mosaic, in almost exactly the same spot where it was discovered. This is a nice touch as it was originally part of the dining room floor in a Roman townhouse that once stood here. But, the amount of existing museums in Colchester concentrating on local history and civic pride meant that firstsite needed to take a braver leap. Despite its striking design, the gallery has managed to be bland – peculiarly, one work is already missing for conservation reasons.
An empty wall at firstsite. Own photograph.
They have all the big names in there but there’s no wow factor and no feeling of excitement. There’s a nice Bill Woodrow narrative sculpture and a good Ai Weiwei column-like sculpture that combines the traditional Chinese materials of porcelain and bamboo. The Barbara Hepworth on loan from Tate is pressed against a wall in a specially air-conditioned room. Visitors can’t walk around it and it seems cramped. Yet, the leaflet proudly proclaims that at 3,200 square metres firstsite will rank among the largest contemporary art venues in the UK. What a waste of space!
Bill Woodrow, Car Door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet, 1982. Own photograph.
Mostly, the gallery seems to be filled with loos – I reckon we passed about eight different toilet blocks as we went round. Maybe they’d have been better getting a few more works in and fewer toilets. Firstsite is a wasted opportunity (#5) and not a gallery that I’ll be rushing back to.
Inside firstsite. Own photograph.
Onwards… We headed to the Minories, the gallery that used to house what is now firstsite. Built in the last phase of the Palladian style, it is another stunning building although most of it is now shut off. Again, it’s so disappointing (wasted opportunity #6). Colchester has so much potential but most of it has been allowed to fade away.
The Minories. Own photograph.
The nearby Holytrees Museum was the most engaging stop of the day. Built in 1719 on the site of an Elizabethan house, Holytrees is a beautiful 18th century building whose collections focus on themes of domestic life and childhood in Colchester over the last 300 years.
The Holytrees Museum. Own photograph.
We had an amble around the town with the aim of seeing Jumbo, the town’s Romanesque water tower, built by Charles Clegg in 1882-3, and standing where the Roman Forum would have been. Construction required well over a million bricks and Jumbo can hold up to 230,000 gallons of water. Although it was decommissioned in the 1980s, it is a beautiful structure that dominates the town and was worth the stroll to go and see it close up. It is partly consumed by the modern developments that surround it and I think this area could have been more sensitively regenerated (that’d be #7).
Jumbo. Own photograph.
Architecturally, the old town is quite pretty but it lacked excitement. Although there’s a lot to see, there are very many more places where I’d prefer to spend the day. Luckily, we passed the time gossiping and we had a giggle but that was nothing to do with the ‘delights’ of Colchester – a town that hasn’t quite worked itself, or the tourist market, out yet.
Camulodunum is at firstsite, Colchester, until 22nd January 2011, www.firstsite.uk.net.