Category Archives: Museums

Richard Fortey’s secret tour of the Natural History Museum

Some years ago, the writer and scientist Richard Fortey took me on a tour of his favourite items in the Natural History Museum. His book, Dry Store Room No 1, is one of the best books I’ve read about London museums.

1 ‘This is the collection of all known species of humming birds which I used as the cover for my book. It goes back nearly 200 years to the earliest days of natural history as spectacle. One of the amazing things is that the colours, the iridescent feathers, have survived so long. You can even see the tiny eggs, with the appropriate egg in it. This whole bird gallery is a survivor to the old days of the museum, preserved almost apologetically as an example of the classic gallery, but a lot of people still stop and look at it even though it’s just stuffed birds.’

Pregnant ichthyosaur fossil showing three skeletons of young inside her bodys 2. ‘This one of the great sea dragons, an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile. This one is particularly beautiful and informative because within the body cavity you can see here outlined in red, the remains of other smaller individuals. The question originally was ‘were they cannibals or did they give birth to live young’ and the answer is almost certainly the latter. These animals are very like porpoises and almost certainly lived the same way, gregariously and pursuing a very fast life that gave them no time to sit on eggs. But this is very easy to miss.’

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3 ‘The building itself. You can choose anything from the various animals and birds that adorn the interior. Even the pillars are based on the bark of trees. On the whole, the building moves from living to fossil as you go from one end to another and that is true also of the animals portrayed. In the mineral gallery, right at the end above a door on the left is a dodo. I also think that one of the monkeys has been made to look a little like Darwin.’

4. ‘The mineral gallery has probably changed the least since my early days and it’s also the least visited. It’s a classic systematic approach where all the minerals are laid out in cases arranged by chemical composition, so you could come here and learn some serious mineralogy if you started at one end and worked your way through. At the end, in the Vault, where particularly precious minerals are displayed, is something  called bournonite with black wheels shaped like cogwheels. This came from a Cornish mine that has since closed so this is really the only good specimen that will ever be found with this particular chemical composition. It’s now extremely valuable because the rarer something gets, the more valuable it becomes.’

5. ‘The blue whale, it might be obvious but it is remarkable. For a while, during the war, some people working here kept an illicit still in the belly of the whale. So even with the best-known exhibit, there are secrets to be had.’

The Natural History Museum's table tops

6. ‘Finally, head for the geology section in the mezzanine level. This used to be an old-fashioned museum in its own right but now it has been changed and in making space they only put back about ten per cent of the specimens. Each one is individually highlighted so it doesn’t give you the systematic overview or leave room for the quirkier items. But this table is still here. It’s a collection of North European ornamental stones all made into one table. You can even make out fossilised nautiloids of around 450 millions year in some of them, and also fossilised coral. There’s no label for it, nothing to say what it is and where it came from. You and I are probably the first people to have stopped and look at this for several weeks.’

Football and anti-Semitism

The debate about the use of the word ‘Yid’ in football is all over the papers at the moment, including, with breathtaking insensitivity, this front page. I’m not easily offended, but found this headline is horrendous.

The topic of Jews and English football is the subject of an exhibition, Four Four Jew, opening next month at the Jewish Museum London. I interviewed the curator and we touched on the controversy around the ‘Y word’ , as she phrased it. She said that while the exhibition would look at the use of ‘Yid’ it ‘wouldn’t come down on either side of the argument’.

Ultimately, whether you are comfortable calling somebody a ‘Yid’, either in support or in hate, is a personal decision. I made up my mind where I stand a long time ago and here is an updated version of an article I wrote on the subject in Time Out a few years ago.

———

I’d been calling Spurs ‘the Yids’ for a couple of years before my dad told me it was racist. ‘Don’t you know it’s anti-Semitic?’ he said. I didn’t, nor had I worked it out from one of my favourite Chelsea chants: ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo/He stands at the back of the Shelf/He goes to the bar/To buy a lager/And only buys one for himself’. Racial stereotypes were clearly not one of my strong points as a 13-year-old.

I’d like to say that I immediately stopped using the word, but I didn’t. Chelsea fans – like those at Arsenal and West Ham – had been calling Tottenham ‘Yids’ for decades. Given that Spurs devotees called themselves the ‘Yid army’ I didn’t see how it caused any harm. I didn’t consider it racist or anti-Semitic, just a near-the-knuckle nickname for a rival football club.

I’ve stopped now. The eureka moment for me came when I was at a game in the mid-90s. Chelsea fan David Baddiel, who is Jewish, was spotted by the crowd after half-time as he returned to his seat with a cup of tea, and several hundred people began chanting ‘Yiddo, Yiddo’ at him, in what I imagine they considered to be an affectionate manner. Baddiel smiled it off – but the penny dropped that this was straightforward racist abuse. Baddiel later wrote:  ‘I told myself that it didn’t matter, that for most of these fans, “Yiddo” simply meant a Tottenham player or fan and that the negativity was about that and not about race.’ However, when Chelsea fans aimed the chant at non-Tottenham Israeli players, Baddiel ‘realised “Yiddo” may mean Tottenham fan but it also means Jew.’ He has since become an outspoken opponent of the use of the word by all supporters, earning him much scorn from Spurs fans. 

It used to be worse. In the 1980s hissing to imitate the release of gas was said to be commonplace, but I have never heard this – or chants about Auschwitz, bar from two drunks on The Shed in a League Cup tie in 1990 –  in more than 25 years of attending Chelsea-Spurs fixtures home and away. By the early 1990s, many fans had realised that was a step too far. I’m sure it still occurs but, in my experience, it’s pretty rare. Although by all accounts, West Ham are still at it. 

The canard that hissing is regularly heard at Chelsea games is often used by Spurs fans, as they attempt to defend their own use of ‘Yid’ but Jeremy Vine, a former Times journalist and another Jewish Chelsea fan, agrees it doesn’t happen often. ‘I’m sure I would notice hissing as it would most likely come from the Matthew Harding Stand, where I sit.’ Vine stopped attending games in the 1980s due to racism and says: ‘Without doubt some of those who chant “Yid” are anti-Semites at heart… but I don’t believe all are.’ The problem is that ‘personal jibes are part of the language of the terraces. Anything goes. And so the boundaries of decency and offensiveness become blurred.’

What muddies the water further is that since the 1970s, Spurs fans have reclaimed what was originally coined as a term of abuse (nobody knows why, Tottenham being no more ‘Jewish’ than Arsenal or Chelsea). Former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates, always torn between defending Chelsea supporters while confronting their excesses, argued that, ‘It is hard to criticise Chelsea fans for calling Tottenham supporters something that they call themselves.’ Chelsea have since rejected this line and now take a zero tolerance approach. It’s worked, to some extent. My old favourite, ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo’ is rarely heard at Stamford Bridge these days. Spurs still get plenty of abuse, but – within the ground, certainly – the tone of it is much changed. 

A few years ago, Spurs conducted a ‘full consultation exercise’ over the use of ‘Yid Army’ because of fears it led to ‘casual anti-Semitism’, but this was criticised by many of their own supporters who felt the chant united Jewish and non-Jewish Tottenham fans. ‘If you are Tottenham, you are a Yid,’ is the line many take. That is what annoyed them so much about the recent FA instruction that all uses of Yid must cease, an argument that David Cameron has now blundered into. Many argue there’s a distinction between chanting ‘Yiddo’ and singing about concentration camps, which is broadly true – unless you’re racist. I’d even go so far to contend that Spurs have won the argument – they’ve reclaimed a term of abuse. But when it leads to casually racist headlines like that published above – and let’s remember that most Jewish people who see that headline will not support Tottenham –  one wonders quite where this will end.

It is, as Joanne Rosenthal, the Jewish Museum curator, told me ‘very complicated. Even if it appears black and white the two poles are very strongly opposed. Fan culture has this nastier side and we can’t ignore it. It’s now become part of Tottenham’s heritage. It’s difficult to tell people what they can or can’t do.’

Perhaps not, and I’m a huge fan of tribalism at football, but sometimes everybody just needs to grow up and move on. Maybe that Metro headline, as trivial and offensive as it is, will give people pause for thought.

 

Banking on Sherlock

When Abbey National opened their grand Art Deco headquarters at Nos 219-229 Baker Street in 1932, they didn’t quite know what they were getting into. Because it sat in the spot where 221b should be, the new building almost immediately began receiving letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes. When Arthur Conan Doyle chose an address for Holmes, he deliberately picked 221b because the Baker Street numbering did not go that high. But after renumbering, and with the arrival of Abbey House, Holmes’s address suddenly came into solid existence.

While many banks might have ignored this accident of geography, Abbey embraced it. Over the years, they really threw themselves into the business of celebrating the fictive biography of the world’s greatest detective. They installed a plaque (now lost), they published books and, after a while, they employed a letter writer, somebody whose job was to respond to all the letters addressed to Sherlock, acting more or less as his personal secretary.

In 1989, the New York Times interviewed Nikki Caparn, who then had that responsibility, and she described how she had received letters asking Sherlock to solve Watergate, or locate some missing homework. ‘Many people don’t ask for anything in particular,’ she said. ‘They just want to know what Mr Holmes is doing now or where he is and they hope he is well. And many people know he’s not real and write tongue in cheek. But some people haven’t worked it out. Mr Holmes would be 136 years old now, so it’s unlikely that he’d still be living here.’

Here is one such response from around exactly that time, sent to Kieran (@hail_tothechimp on Twitter), who had written to Sherlock to ask him about his most difficult case. Ms Caparn clearly does not feel equipped to respond to such a difficult and controversial query, so plays a straight bat with her standard response.

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Abbey have since moved from Baker Street and are owned by Spanish giants Santander, and I don’t know what has happened to their vast archive of letters. However, Abbey also created something for Sherlock Holmes fans that is definitely still standing. In 1951, the bank put together a Sherlock Holmes exhibition for the Festival of Britain at Abbey House. The Spectator said the Festival ‘was unlikely to show anything nearer perfection in its way than the reconstruction by the Marylebone Public Libraries Committee of Sherlock Holmes’s room in Baker Street.’

The review continues that ‘everything is here for the student of Holmes—violin, hypodermic syringe, revolvers, handcuffs’ and provides not just ‘a shrine for the connoisseurs of Holmes but a deep pleasure for the student of the late Victorian period’. The Spectator concluded that ‘when the Festival has subsided, this charming reconstruction is preserved for the enjoyment of posterity.’

Which it was. In 1957, the brewer Whitbread purchased the entire exhibition and put it on display in a pub, the Northumberland Arms, which it renamed the Sherlock Holmes and opened as what was surely one of London’s first theme pubs. The pub is located in Charing Cross, a key location in many Holmes stories, and the exhibition is still standing exactly as it was installed, preserving to this day behind glass in an upstairs room a slice of 1950s Britain in the shape of a fictional Victorian living room.

Secret London: the Science Museum’s palace of pills

© Science Museum/SSPL

Time Out recently asked me to contribute to a piece on London’s 10 weirdest museum exhibits (something I’ve blogged about previously). My favourite previously overlooked discovery was the above ‘Palace Of Pills’ at the Science Museum.

This extraordinary sculpture, constructed from old pills, medicine bottles and syringes, was made for a campaign run by the East London Health Project between 1978 and 1980. The ELHP was a coalition of health worker unions and local Trades Councils who were campaigning against cuts to the NHS as well as highlighting other healthcare issues facing Londoners in the late-70s. This was the first time the NHS had really come under sustained attack from any political party since it was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The Palace of Pills was created by artists Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson, who built the sculpture in their studio using old pill bottles that they acquired from the ELHP’s partners working in the health service. They then photographed it for a poster that was displayed in waiting rooms and doctor surgeries.

‘We did eight posters,’ Leeson told me. ‘The Palace of Pills was made for a poster that talked about how the drug companies were dominating what was happening in health, and for reasons of profit not health.’ The model was too big for the studio and already starting to deteriorate when the Science Museum asked if they could have it. ‘They saw it as a curiosity but I’m delighted it still exists,’ she says. Leeson and Dunn took the experience into creating posters for further pioneering campaigns against the redevelopment of Docklands.

Death and collecting

The Wellcome Collection is currently showing a typically absorbing exhibition titled Death, but it’s not really about that at all. It features work from a private collection, that of Richard Harris, and largely consists of skulls and skeletons, many of which are actually rather lifelike.

In fact, despite its arresting title, this is in many senses a rather squeamish, clean exhibition. There’s no dying, no decomposition, no pain, little mourning or God. There are no worms eating dead bodies, no cancer destroying live ones. It’s not even particularly morbid. It’s more about one man’s obsession with the human skeleton, stripped of flesh and cleansed of blood, sinew and memory, as portrayed by a number of very beautiful works of art over the centuries. If you want a more gruesome, more real, idea of death, try the Museum of London’s Doctors, Dissection and Medicine Men.

Collection owner Richard Harris stands in front of a work my Mexican artist Marcos Raya called Family Portrait : Wedding  at the 'Death: A Self-portrait' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on November 14, 2012 in London, England. The exhibition showcases 300 works from a unique collection by Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, devoted to the iconography of death. The display highlights art works, historical artifacts, anatomical illustrations and ephemera from around the world and opens on November 15, 2012 until February 24, 2013.

It is tempting to speculate why Harris is so fascinated with his particular idea of death – why so clinical? Why so safe? – but it’s also ultimately rather pointless. In his excellent essay on collecting, Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin noted that ‘‘Collectors, like artists, operate out of unconscious motives, and so we cannot be known to ourselves.’ A collection can be about anything, and may reflect a personal interest or a psychological flaw, but the reasons behind their creation are rarely as interesting as you may hope.

What is intriguing about Harris’s love for skulls is that collections are often built as a defence against death itself, a way for the collector to claim mortality for himself in the form of something that will exist after he no longer does so (even if most collections end up being broken by families who lack the passion or obsession to keep them intact). Collections are also about memory, a way for the collector to freeze a moment in time. Every item represents a second, an hour, a week, a month – however long it took to locate and acquire – in the collector’s life that he can look at and recollect for years to come.

A collection is also about surrounding yourself with cool things that you like, although whether this ever makes the serious collector happy is a moot point. In his study of the collecting impulse, To Have And To Hold, Phillip Blom astutely notes that ‘For every collector, the most important object is the next one’, an acknowledgement that the collector will never be satisfied by what they have, as their next acquisition could be the big one, the one that completes the collection, or sends it off in an exciting new direction. This will never happen, of course, locking the collector in a spiral of anticipation and disappointment.

All of this is true whatever is being collected, whether it’s sick bags from aeroplanes, James Bond first editions or things that might be haunted. And just about anything can be collected, if you have the right kind of imagination. My friend Carl Williams, who deals in the counterculture, talks about his idea of collecting around ‘the sullen gaze’, that look of cruel insolence and careless superiority perfected by William Burroughs but which can be traced to many others, putting arresting flesh on Harris’s ambivalent skull.

Beats in London

When Ned Polsky wrote Hustlers, Beats And Others his pioneering sociological study of the Beat subculture as it was in 1960, he was scathing of their literary value. ‘Most beat literature is poor when it is not godawful,’ he opined. ‘And this is certainly true of its best-publicised examples, which have been surpassed by even the minor Victorians: James Thomson’s poetic howl of urban despair, The City of Dreadful Night, is greater by far than anything Ginsberg offers, and in on-the-road literature the genuine gusto of George Borrow is preferable to the faked-up fervour of Kerouac.’

Stinging stuff – and that faked-up charge must have hurt – but times change, and while the Beats are still an acquired taste, one can’t image George Borrow being the subject of a special exhibition at the British Library, as is currently the case with Jack Kerouac.

On The Road: Jack Kerouac’s Manuscript Scroll is a small but welcome look at the basics of Beatery, offering an overview of the main protagonists – Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso (the only one Polsky rates) – and trying to explain where they fitted within the American literary tradition. The exhibition is illustrated by photographs, many of the American landscape as explored in On The Road, but also of the writers themselves. I particularly liked this shot of William Burroughs, dressed like a fugitive Nazi, hand shielding eyes from the sun as he stares back with clinical impassivity. Burroughs is possibly the most photogenic writer there has ever been.

The main exhibit, though, is the extraordinary scroll on which Kerouac wrote a key draft for On The Road. You do not have to like the book – and I don’t, particularly – to appreciate the sheer thrilling insanity of this object, 120 feet of closely typed pages, filled with ‘spontaneous prose’ and occasional pencil marks. I have never seen a manuscript like it.

Kerouac’s second novel has been described as the book that ‘started
a whole new youth culture of which drugs were an accepted part’, so sodden is it in dope and speed. It was based on a series of road trips Kerouac took with
Neal Cassady (the pair are reinvented as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty respectively) between 1947 and 1950, and most of the characters are based on Kerouac’s friends. Mythology states that it was written in a three-week
splurge fuelled by coffee and Benzedrine, but Kerouac actually began it as early as 1948, when he also came up with the title. He spent a while searching for a voice, but eventually settled upon a stream-of-consciousness, jazzy, impressionistic style. This was inspired by a 40,000-word letter written to him Cassady, a charismatic sociopath described by his biographer as ‘a slim hipped hedonist who could throw a football seventy yards, do fifty chin-ups at a clip and masturbate six times a day’. Cassady was trouble; he was also said to have ‘one of the greatest minds I’ve ever known’, by a friend of writer Ken Kesey.

Kerouac sat down to write his famous ‘scroll’ draft on 2 April 1951 on a 120-feet sheet of paper that had belonged to Bill Cannastra, a wild-living friend who had been decapitated after sticking his head out of a New York train window.
Kerouac spent many years rewriting the manuscript as he tried to find a publisher, and it was eventually brought out by Viking in September 1957 – Kerouac belatedly considered renaming it Rock and Roll Road
to catch the spirit of the time – and immediately received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, which claimed it was ‘the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as Beat’.

On The Road is one of the most important books of the post-War era, but it’s questionable how much it influenced English culture given that it is such a specifically American book on such an American topic written in the American vernacular. London was more taken by Burroughs and Ginsberg, both of whom would spend extensive time in the city while Kerouac only visited for a few days in the 1940s when serving in the Navy. By 1959, Barry Miles, Jeff Nuttall, Michael Horovitz and the rest of the British counterculture scene were soon discussing, publishing, imitating and eulogising the Beat poets. 

Being more of a philistine, though, I prefer the exploitation stuff. Tony Hancock frequently mocked Beatnik culture, notably in The Poetry Society.

Hancock: You see, Sidney, we are a collection of kindred spirits who are all revolting against the Establishment.

Bill: How long have you been at it?

Hancock: Three days.

I also like Colin Wilson’s often sardonic but hugely charismatic novel, Adrift In Soho, which has that time-honoured plot of a young ingenue coming to London and getting drawn into a curious sub-culture, in this case the Beats. It is apparently currently being made into a film.

But the pull of the Beats, that desire to be different, was probably best expressed by Hancock again, in the opening scenes to his film, The Rebel. ‘Where are we going?’ It’s what Kerouac was asking, and it’s what Hancock wanted to know as well. Well, where?

Wellcome to London: how Henry Wellcome ‘hoovered up the world’ and left it on the Euston Road

Wisconsin, 1858. A five-year-old boy is playing near his frontier home when a strange stone catches his eye. He takes it to his father, who examines the flint carefully before deciding that it was a prehistoric tool made thousands of years before to cut meat. It probably meant as much to its creator as the railway did to modern humans. ‘That excited my imagination and never was forgotten,’ wrote Henry Wellcome years later, after he had grown up, moved to London and accumulated one of the largest collections of scientific paraphernalia that has ever been gathered by a single individual.

Henry Wellcome

Wellcome established his pharmaceutical company, Wellcome-Burroughs, in 1880, making a mint selling pills to an English public that had previously taken medicine in the form of powder or syrup. This fortune sits in the Wellcome Trust, which was established 76 years ago and is now worth £14 billion, making it one of the world’s largest charitable foundations. Next door to the Wellcome Trust HQ on Euston Road, a short walk from St Pancras, sits the Wellcome Collection, a museum that houses some of the million or so objects collected by Wellcome in his lifetime. Here is Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush, ancient sex aids, Chinese torture chairs lined with blades, boxes of false eyes, human skeletons and paintings by Van Gogh. It is one of the most extraordinary collections in the world, a throwback to a time when wealthy individuals would hoover up the weird and wonderful of the world for their personal collections, but executed on a scale few could compete with.

Ken Arnold is the Wellcome’s Head of Public Programmes. ‘This is the last great non-connoisseurs collection,’ he says. ‘Our usual concept of a collector is somebody who carefully decides whether something is authentic and then forks out a huge amount of money for it. Wellcome had an “other-end-of-the-telescope” approach. He saw everything through medical-tinted spectacles and wanted to own anything that would illuminate that fascination.’

Wellcome collected everything: paintings, engravings, photographs, models, sculptures, manuscripts, books, periodicals, pamphlets, letters, prescriptions, diplomas, medical instruments, archaeological finds, skeletons, skin, hospital equipment, advertisements, drugs, remedies, food, plants, microscope slides, charms, amulets, ceremonial paraphernalia, costumes, medals, coins and furniture. He bought entire shops, contents, fixtures and fittings, acquiring enough to recreate an entire street. He bought others collections, picked up human skulls from African battlefields and returned from one typical trip abroad with 44 packing cases of material. If something wasn’t available, he had an artist make a reproduction. Teams of buyers were finding him items right up until his death in 1936. His reach was broad and their brief was wide.

‘Wellcome had deep pockets and no bureaucrats telling him what he could bring home so he had none of our moral, financial or logistical concerns,’ says Arnold. ‘He hoovered up the world, and left us with this extraordinarily unwieldy and undisciplined collection.’ Although Wellcome amassed an immense collection, he was frugal with his money. ‘He was very wealthy, but he would send employees to auctions dressed down so they didn’t look too rich, and would set up fake companies so people wouldn’t know it was his money,’ says Ross MacFarlane, research officer at the Wellcome Library.

A chippy self-made American, Wellcome could never become part of the British establishment – although he was awarded both a knighthood and the French Legion d’honneur – and a desire to be taken seriously may have prompted his determination to create a museum of ‘the art and science and healing’. This opened in 1913 in South Kensington, before it moved to Wigmore Street and closing in 1932. When Wellcome died, the collection was put into storage or dispersed.

‘The British Museum has 40,000 objects, the Science Museum has more than 100,000, the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford has 30,000 items and there are bits in almost every museum in the UK,’ says Arnold. The Wellcome Trust has since taken a similarly philanthropic approach, funding wings in numerous UK museums, galleries and academic institutions.

In 2007, the Wellcome Collection opened. It is a modern, classy space, with a cafe and bookshop, as well as a gallery that hosts thought-provoking exhibitions that use art and science to explore topics such as Skin, Sleep and Brains. Their next exhibition, Death, promises to be particularly fascinating and challenging.

The Wellcome dares to be different: while most museums take an unfamiliar topic and wring all the knowledge out of it like a damp dishcloth, the Wellcome looks at something familiar and turns it inside out, using contemporary art and scientific research to make visitors question what they think they already implicitly understand. Their ability to do this can be traced back to Henry Wellcome himself.

‘We feel free to interpret the material Wellcome collected,’ says MacFarlane. ‘Because although we know when something was bought and what it cost, we don’t always know how it got to the auction.’ Arnold expands on this: ‘He didn’t talk about his philosophy. There’s enough to get an idea of why he was collecting, but there’s not so much that we feel we have to conform to his beliefs. He once said ‘Never tell anybody what you are planning to do until you have done it.’ That sounds like a good idea to me…’

So the Wellcome eschews blockbuster shows – which Arnold describes as ‘a depressingly greedy way to conduct exhibitions’ – and takes pride in imaginative live events. ‘We never try to be definitive,’ says Arnold. ‘There’s always more to discover. And we don’t want to be po-faced. Science is either deadly serious or fun with pink fluffy letters – and between these two unpalatable positions is a yawning chasm that can be filled with smart and sophisticated entertainment.’

Of course, the Wellcome is helped by having a lot of money in its coffers. ‘We are much more privileged that most other organisations. We are wealthy and we don’t have to satisfy civil servants, corporate sponsors or shareholders. But that attitude comes from the Wellcome Trust itself: science is a risk-taking business and there is a sense we are allowed to be experimental.’

MacFarlane finishes that thought, ‘When we take the directors an idea, they’ll often want to give it a go, and that’s a bit like how Wellcome collected. It’s a great position to be in.’

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Admission free. The Wellcome’s next exhibition is Death, from November 15. 

Time Out and listings

Time Out went free this week. It wasn’t really a shock, the notion had been knocking around when I worked there, particularly when thelondonpaper and London Lite were stinking up the streets. The success of the free Evening Standard probably sealed the deal. The economics are unarguable: drop the cover price and circulation rises, allowing you to charge more for advertising. If you can simultaneously reduce costs – which they have been doing through regular redundancies – you may have a viable magazine once again. The danger, though, is that once the decision to go free has been made, there’s no going back…

What has it meant for Time Out? Well, the new magazine has less pages but still has plenty of previews, lists, bitty features and clunky ads, with just a couple of longer reads thrown in for us old-fashioned types. What it doesn’t have – along with book reviews –  is listings (at least in any meaningful sense), which was the reason Time Out was invented in 1968. (There’s also no letters page, which is a mistake if they still want to establish that vital personal link with readers, and one I think they will quickly rectify.)

This isn’t really a surprise. Successive TO editors have always struggled with the listings part of their brief: listings are ugly, boring and largely resistant to any sexing up, despite the best attempts of periodic and largely futile ‘redesigns’ (has a redesign of any magazine or newspaper EVER raised circulation?). They are also beyond the control of the editor, who has to leave them to section heads. Even editors who came from within the magazine, and therefore understood the centrality of listings to what Time Out did, didn’t actually appear to like them all that much. They take up valuable space from the exciting things an editor likes to do at the front of the mag and telling a section editor you are cutting their pages is a draaaag.

To make matters worse, listings do not do well when it comes to ‘page views’ or ‘unique users’, the trite and often completely useless method by which the value of anything in print is these days judged. And because people don’t click on listings on the website (for reasons that are so obvious I won’t even bother to explain), the logic goes, they don’t read them in print.

Hmmmmmm.

A number of people have noted that without decent browsable printed listings, Time Out has potentially rendered itself useless, but I don’t want to comment on that. What does interest me is that effect a lack of listings will have London’s smaller venues. The joy of TO‘s listings was that it gave the smallest museum or club as much prominence as the biggest and most well-funded, allowing readers to decide which to visit entirely on the merit of their programming. It’s this that made Time Out absolutely central to the rise of fringe theatre, avant-garde art, clubbing, burlesque and alternative comedy – each scene was created by individuals, but a free listing in Time Out coupled with enthusiastic support from in-the-know section editors took things to another level. Even larger venues have told me they noticed the difference in footfall when they were omitted from listings (by accident or for reasons of space).

Time Out obviously doesn’t have the circulation, and therefore the pull,  it once did and there are other specialist resources for those interested in the esoteric fringes of London’s cultural life, but the loss of listings will surely still be felt by venues that aren’t internet savvy or lack a large marketing department. The solution for many will be a prominent place in the preview part of the existing sections. Time Out‘s section heads will never have been in such demand… And PRs can be a dangerously homogenising bunch.

For more on the new Time Out, here’s Diamond Geezer (positive), Christopher Fowler (not) and Londonist (neutral). 

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in London

Tate Britain’s rather brilliant exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood opens this week. It cover much the same ground as the recent and slightly more brilliant Cult of Beauty at the V&A, but with  – naturally – greater emphasis on the visual arts over the decorative.

One interesting thread running through the exhibition is the use of London as a landscape. The PRB were all connected to London and liked to paint outdoors so the city naturally appeared in a number of their paintings, often uncredited. This painting by William Holman Hunt – Rienzi, Vowing To Obtain Justice – was painted outdoors in Lambeth and Hampstead Heath, while famous images like Ophelia by John Everett Millais used the countryside of now suburban Ewell as the backdrop.

Another of the most famous PRB paintings is The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis, a tragic tableaux in which London’s skyline can be glimpsed through the open window. The vividness of Chatterton’s hair, incidentally, really has to be seen in person if possible.

More obvious London images were to follow. This is Charles Allston Collins’ bucolic take on May, In The Regent’s Park, from his home in Hanover Terrace. Collins was not an official member of the PRB, but his style was sympathetic and this was considered ‘absurd’ when first exhibited, though presumably not because of the sheep seen frolicking in the park in the background.

Also closely affiliated with the PRB was Ford Madox Brown, and his wonderful view of Hampstead from his bedroom window – An English Autumn Afternoon. Again, this was considered ugly by contemporary critics. Kenwood House can be seen top left, but London remains a distant – if rapidly advancing – presence.

Brown offered a very different and more recognisable take on Hampstead in perhaps his greatest painting, Work, which depicted navvies digging up a Hampstead road to lay water pipes. It’s a marvellous evocation of a London street and I’m pretty sure those navvies are still laying water pipes in London to this day. See them all at Tate Britain from Wednesday 12 Sept, 2012.

Londoner Challenge: the beautiful South

We won.

Many thanks to my illustrious team mates, our competitors, the Museum of London and Matt from Londonist for putting on such a fun night.

A sample of the questions are posted below. 

  • What pub name can be found on Newman Street, Berwick Street, Kingly Street, Rupert Street and Bennett Street?
  • What’s the only street name within the City of London that ends in the word ‘Road’?
  • Which current production completes this sequence: The Woman in White, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and…
  • According to A Day in the Life, by the Beatles, how many holes would it take to fill the Albert Hall, assuming it’s the same as the number of holes in Blackburn, Lancashire?
  • In which London museum might you find a jar full of moles, half a pregnant cat and the penis bone of a walrus, all on prominent display?
  • What gets divided up between the monarch, the Vintners’ company and the Dyers’ company on the Thames each year?
  • Who was the last English monarch to enter the House of Commons?
  • At the 1948 London Olympics, the British amateur football team was managed by the great Matt Busby. What unlikely item did he hand out to his players at half time, in accordance with the sponsors’ wishes?
  • Who are the “Official Supplier of Cereal Bars To The Olympic and Paralympic Games”?
  • What can be found in Earl’s Court and King’s Cross St Pancras Tube stations, but is missing from Barons Court Tube?