The Old Man and the Museum

I hadn’t been working there long when I first noticed the old man. He was padding round the balcony, glancing about with a look of quiet fascination at the old maps displayed on the walls. He made three circuits, before descending to the ground floor and tipping his hat at the meet and greeter as he left.

I quickly learned from my colleagues that he was a regular to the museum and had been for some time. Aside from taking walks around the upper floors, the old man also liked to tell jokes. He would often come over to the information desk and whisper “Have you heard the one about…” to whoever was stationed there that day. The punchlines were terrible, but we would laugh anyway out of courtesy and also because it was a brief spell of cheeriness amongst the drone of weary visitors.

From then on, I paid close attention to his habits and saw how he would pause on occasion to pat a handrail or a stone column, like it was a trusted friend. At other times he would suddenly become fixated by an exhibit and beam at it with a knowing smile. This often had the profound effect of drawing other visitors to the object at which point the old man would slip through the bustle and continue on his steady meander.

Most of all, he enjoyed looking at the Didier-Pouget that fills the wall outside the wildlife gallery. Nothing seemed to please him more than taking in the sunlit tufts of heather and the sprawling hillside as if it were a view he knew too well or perhaps longed to see in person.

The first week he stopped visiting the museum, things began to deteriorate. Chunks of marble began breaking off the staircase in the front hall as visitors passed up and down. Surveyors were brought in to assess the problem, but they were unable to determine a cause and management had no choice but to close them off, indefinitely.

The old man appeared a few days later, using the back stairs instead to reach the galleries. Although he still made his rounds, word quickly spread that he didn’t display his usual level of affection towards the exhibits or the building.

The following week, the preventative conservator became convinced that there were new cracks appearing in the Assyrian reliefs. At first, no one believed her until she began taking pictures that illustrated the encroaching damage. The curators were bewildered, but those of us who worked on the galleries knew what was happening. You could feel it in the walls and the great oak doorways – everywhere was withering in his absence.

The last time I saw the old man, his face was deathly pale. He still wore his broad-brimmed hat, but he’d swapped the tweed for a grey woollen suit jacket. He didn’t tell us any jokes. He barely made it up to the balcony.

Over time, things returned to normal; mostly. The steps were able to be repaired and the cracks in the reliefs no longer seem to be increasing.

How many of us have noticed the new addition, I couldn’t say. It’s barely spoken about, except through the briefest of whispers or in the flick of an eye. But if you care to look, you’ll see that another figure has appeared amongst the rose-tinted hillside. There’s not much detail to make out apart from a broad-brimmed hat that’s being held aloft as if the person is embracing the scene.

No doubt there’ll be others who’ll become a fixture amongst the museum and its collections. It’s what they deserve after contributing so much to the masonry and the treasures within. You might even call it a public service. For those yet to discover their own cherished item, I wish them long and healthy lives.

Under the bridge

Down by the river, beneath the motorway is a place where the sun burrows deep. Concrete pillars are its pen, and the banks the paper, on which the light draws ever-shifting shadows.

Every so often, I venture down there, and try to capture what’s been sketched on the walls. Its particularly  interesting visiting at different times of the day, with mornings casting a bright white light across the Easton side, while sundown brings a warm, yellow glow that dies out over the western end of the river.

There’s not many places like it, especially in an age where any unkempt space is quickly pounced upon by rabid developers. Closed in by the motorway in an area still overlooked by estate agents means it continues to exist for now; an obscure and gritty canvas for graffiti artists and sunlight, alike.

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Adela Breton: the life and work of an artist and explorer

It would have taken days, weeks even, to reach South America. Then followed a journey on horseback into the Mexican jungle to work in searing heat, all the while battling fever and bites from numerous insects.

This is something of what Adela Breton, the Victorian artist and explorer, describes about her travels to ancient Mexico in two exhibitions currently on show. The first, at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (BRLSI) looks at Breton’s personal life and her experiences working at the Mayan ruins.

Growing up in Bath, Breton began donating objects and works to the institute following her trips to Central America. Some of these are on display along with a timeline of her working life displayed on panels in the foyer of the institute.

One of the most interesting things are copies of her sketchbooks, which feature watercolours of the surrounding landscapes and people of Mexico as well as photos that give a real flavour of  life in some of the towns and villages during that period.

The second exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery looks at Breton’s artistic practice. It’s on a somewhat grander scale, showcasing some of the huge tracings and paintings she produced while visiting the ruins.

The exhibition is the culmination of a much larger project to conserve, store and digitise the collection of her works. Breton began passing on her findings and works to the museum after the BRLSI could no longer provide the space to look after them. Bristol’s collection stands at over 1400 items and prior to the exhibition, the conservation team spent four years restoring and preserving the huge range of artworks.

Harry Metcalf, Paper Conservator at the museum, was involved in the project and says how the process gave them an insight into Breton – the artist.

“What’s interesting is that she used a variety of methods to record the decoration and carvings, including prints, watercolours, sketches and notes. This has enabled us to understand how she went about working at the sites and the techniques that she used.”

Many clues are visible in the works such as various cuts she made in the paper, which Harry believes were done to create a ‘flap’ that she could lift up to view the wall beneath her drawings. The cuts were then sealed with brown paper tape which discoloured over time. The conservators left it in place however, as it gives a valuable indication to how Breton worked.

There are also many sections that have been left blank, leading curators to believe that she wanted to remain true to what she was copying where detail had already been eroded or damaged. This highlights how crucial her work was in capturing the details of the remains before some of them were lost forever.

“One of the most important aspects of her work is that very little of the original colour exists so this collection is supposedly now the most comprehensive record of how they would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.”

Mounting the pieces proved quite a challenge as Breton worked exactly to scale. Harry used a technique called strip-lining, where pieces of a Japanese paper were used to attach the edges of the drawings to a rigid backing board.Using a conventional picture frame would have added too much weight for them to be moved and would also have caused problems in displaying matching sections of paintings.

One piece consists of four sections and there wasn’t enough space in the gallery to display them one on top of the other. But the team were still able to hang two pairs close enough so that visitors can see where the details join up.

“It’s not often that works of this size are put on display. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and view these extraordinary works and learn about the life of a remarkable person.”

Part of this article together with pictures of the conservation project can be seen on the website of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

All roots lead upwards – part two

On our last full day, we turned our backs on Florence and took the train to Arezzo, a city less talked about yet promising an equally grand history with Etruscan roots dating back to early BC.

We were rather unimpressed, then, to find a bland urban centre spreading out from the station, made all the more worse by pouring rain. With no other options in sight save for shopping in the highstreet stores, we made a run for a cafe, trying to find one that would fit the five of us and a pushchair. Eventually, we came across a rather unusual but immaculately done out 60’s style joint where we immersed ourselves in pastries and cappuccinos.

Once the rain had eased, we continued away from the train station and soon noticed the environment beginning to change. Unlike many cities where the landmark sights are to be found in the centre, here only those willing to climb the vertiginous streets are rewarded with the true Arezzo. The higher we climbed, the older and more majestic the buildings became. One of the more famous was the Basilica di San Francesco, where the Legend of the True Cross fresco by Piero della Francesca resides. But there was a myriad of other churches and museums at almost every turn, each with their own story to tell. Even the library was a sight in itself, with a wall of carved faces and emblems facing the street.

At the very top of the hill was a cathedral with a working clock tower and nearby, the Piazza Grande, a square surrounded by churches and towers as well as a stunning arched promenade.

But it wasn’t only the architecture that was fascinating. The shops added to the fabric of the area, with many specialist retailers such as a ‘Particularia’ store housed in a building from 900AD, which was packed with curiousities and medieval tools. There were also cave-like delicatessens full of cheeses and Italian meats and wine-tasting grottoes barely large enough for two tables.

With limited trains to take us back, we left Arezzo earlier than we would have liked and opted to go for a last supper in the nearest town to our farmstay. Considering there was only one restaurant to choose from, the decision was straightforward. The place was a traditional trattoria in every sense; analogue TV playing dubbed films in the background, paper tablecloths and hefty pizzas. Not to mention a Tuscan twist of stag’s heads decorating the walls.

‘A forbidding and wild place’: New York in the late 70’s

I recently came across an interview with Ken Schles about his photographic projects, Invisible Cities and Night Walk, in which he gives a visceral and eye-opening account of reality in downtown New York in the late 70’s and 80’s.

Well worth a read for photographers, urbanists and city-inspired artists.

http://www.kenschles.com

The Edwardian Cloakroom Presents: ‘Secret City’ by Dirty Confetti Monday 13th – Sunday 19th October 2014

I love this space and have been thinking for a while about how to do an exhibition here. This is a great idea.

“Make glorious, amazing mistakes.”

A truly inspirational speech for anyone who aspires to be creative.

The Daily Post

In Neil Gaiman’s now famous 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts, he offers some excellent advice to free us from perfectionism, imploring us to simply create — to make art — no matter what. What’s wonderful about this advice is that it applies to any creative endeavour, regardless of whether your art form is writing, drawing, painting, sculpting, or découpage:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good…

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