Tag Archives: Natural History Museum

Claustrophobic alleyways or a delightful treasure trove?

22 Mar

The V&A could not really have fitted much more into one gallery for their latest exhibition. Entitled Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars it doesn’t sound the most inspiring but it’s a treasure trove with 150 or so objects including silverware, jewellery (with magnifying glasses sensibly attached to the cases), taxidermy, armour, coats of arms, firearms, paintings, sculptures, clothing, Shakespeare’s first folio and maps. In spite of being an academic exhibition looking at a weighty topic, it clearly highlights an often neglected area of history, using important examples from the history of art.

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Armour design for Sir Henry Lee, c. 1585. Own photograph.

I must say from the outset that I’m really torn – on the one hand, I think the exhibition is a fascinating study of the development of cultural diplomacy and trade between Britain and Russia from its origins in 1555 when the Muscovy Company was founded. But, on the other hand, the way the exhibition is curated is confining and doesn’t do any of these objects justice.

It starts with Henry VIII’s consolidation of the Tudor dynasty, after his accession to the throne in 1509, and then follows the exchange between British sovereigns and ambassadors until the end of Charles II’s reign in 1685 when the British monarchy had resumed contact with Russia.

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A selection of fabulous armour on display. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.

On entry to the exhibition we are greeted with carved wooden sculptures of beasts – a red bull, a black griffin, a white ram and a crowned white dolphin. These particular pieces were created to commemorate Thomas, Lord Dacre, who fought at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Power becomes immediately apparent here and is seen in various guises throughout this exhibition; it’s seen in the majestic armour on display as well as through the culture of possessing beautiful objects and costume. Power was not just dictated by exquisite jewels, it was far more subtle.

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Beasts at the entrance. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.

The audio guide is in Russian and English – a nice touch to welcome Russian visitors, showing that our relations weren’t always frosty. In fact, one of the objects getting a lot of attention is a large white pelican – a gift from Russia that we still hold dear and can usually found at the Natural History Museum. I hasten to add that in 1662, it was alive and with a partner. The pelican is a strong heraldic emblem and, of course, the successors of this pair can still be found in St James’s Park. Gift-giving is a theme explored throughout the exhibition – there’s the lavish chariot presented in 1604 by British ambassador Thomas Smith to the Russian ruler Tsar Boris Gudunov. It’s represented here by a specially commissioned film and beautiful scale model. This film is one example of the successful use of multimedia; informative videos are dotted around to explain interesting points or arguments – there’s one looking at how miniatures were made.

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Model of an English Coach, 1974-1982. Own photograph.

At the very centre of the exhibition is a showcase of British and French silver, not just showing off these pieces but charting their extraordinary survival. The low lighting suits the works excellently. But, we really are led round the show and there isn’t much choice in where to go. These alleyways of art can become quite claustrophobic. The objects are amazing but heaven help you if you want to go back to see something again. The one way system doesn’t allow for any flexibility.

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Alleyways at the exhibition. Own photograph.

The Tudor and Stuart courts are explored in far more depth than the Russian court and it seems a bit unbalanced. Maybe this was different when the exhibition was shown in a slightly different format at the Kremlin last year.

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Finery.  Image via www.thetimes.co.uk.

The shop, as ever, really gets it right and knows how to maximise its market potential – there’s English mead created exclusively for the V&A, stained glass transfers, coins and goblets.

Despite all these positives, I can’t forgive that I felt I was frog-marched around this exhibition. If the objects had had more room, I’d have enjoyed it so much more.

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Treasures of the Royal Courts is at the V&A until 14th July 2013, www.vam.ac.uk.

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The Forces of Nature: Photography and a Slippery Skate at the NHM

13 Dec

I don’t think I’ve been to the Natural History Museum since my childhood when I went to see the dinosaurs but this trip confirmed it is certainly somewhere I should visit more often.

The Natural History Museum. Own photograph. 

I went to see their Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition where more than 100 photographs from 17 categories are on display.  The competition is in its 47th year and is a much-loved fixture of the NHM’s calendar.

Petr Simon, Racket-tail in the rain, 2011. Courtesy of Petr Simon and Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year and via www.nhm.ac.uk.   

The exhibition doesn’t maintain to be an academic show – it is a collection of stunning images.  Walking around the space, my first thought was that all these photographers should be winners.  The works are stunning, the kind we all naïvely think we could have taken but most of us don’t have the skill, timing or access.

Eric Pierre, The Charge, 2011. Courtesy of Eric Pierre and Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year and via www.nhm.ac.uk

The Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year prize is for a sequence of six photos that tell a memorable story.  The winner of this year’s award, Daniel Beltrá, a specialist in environmental and conservation stories, is also the holder of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year.  Beltrá’s series The Price of Oil charts the worst oil-spill in history off the coast of Louisiana in 2010. Disaster photos are often harrowing and his images made me shudder.  Beltrá does not deliberately shock – he is just showing reality and its harsh consequences.  Still Life in Oil shows eight pelicans rescued from this spill and awaiting their second bout of cleaning.  Although Beltrá has created art out of disaster, it’s not the beauty or technical perfection of his photograph that stays with you, it’s the heart-breaking severity of the situation that inspires people to take action.

Daniel Beltrá, Still Life in Oil, 2011.  Courtesy of Daniel Beltrá and Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year and via www.nhm.ac.uk

Ant Rider comes from the category Behaviour: all other animals which focuses on animals that are not mammals or birds who behave in ways that are seldom witnessed and little-known or understood.  Bence Máté had to work at night in the Costa Rican rainforest, lying face-down to capture the leaf-cutter ants at their busiest.  He used four flashes; two to light the branch ‘road’ being used by the worker ants and two more as backlights.  The hierarchy of these insects is fascinating.  The ant on the leaf has the job of chasing away parasitic flies, while the larger worker ant carries the leaf fragment to be used as compost to grow fungus for the food on which these ants rely.

Bence Máté, Ant Rider, 2011. Courtesy of Bence Máté and Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year and via www.nhm.ac.uk

Not all of the photographs concentrate solely on animals; the exhibition also focuses on our natural landscapeDenis Budhov’s photograph, In the Valley of the Giants, shows the aftermath of an eruption from the Kljuchevsky volcano where thick lava streams glowed at dusk under a lenticular cloud.

One of the hardest things about walking around this exhibition was trying to single out photographs to discuss here as I could gladly have written about them all.

 

Denis Budhov, In the Valley of the Giants, 2011. Courtesy of Denis Budhov and Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year and via www.nhm.ac.uk

Feeling festive, I couldn’t help but look at Territorial Strut, showing a robin in the snow.  As the temperatures drop in winter, robins grace our gardens searching for food.  Ross Hoddinott captured this by setting his exposure meter so it wasn’t fooled by the snow’s brightness and used a shutter-speed fast enough to freeze the movement, but slow enough to blur the scattering snow.  The title of this photograph reflects the robin’s pose as he scatters snow and strikes a warning to an approaching male.

Ross Hoddinott, Territorial Strut, 2011. Courtesy of Ross Hoddinott and Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year and via www.nhm.ac.uk

These perfect images capture nature as we wish we could see it.  The interaction these photographers have experienced is mind-blowing and their recognition here is much deserved.

Paul Souders, The Grace of Giants, 2011. Courtesy of Paul Souders and Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year and via www.nhm.ac.uk

It was only fitting to head outside to skate at the enchanting open-air ice rink.

 

The Natural History Museum ice-rink.  Own photograph.

But, of course, just in time for our session the heavens opened.  It must be something about me and outdoor rinks.  I skate every week but, as the ice began to get slippery, I wasn’t prepared to risk falling again and the bar beckoned.  I’m safer at Ally Pally!

Veolia Environnement: Wildlife Photographer of the Year is at the Natural History Museum until 11th March 2012, www.nhm.ac.uk.

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