The concept behind the Migration Museum is such a good one and is needed more than ever in our divided Brexit broken country. This exhibition in temporary accommodation in Lambeth shows how seven major migration moments changed Britain. The title of the exhibition is ‘No Turning Back’.
It is useful to be reminded about the history that has forged Britain especially when the version of history portrayed by many in the EU referendum is one rewritten to suit the Little Englanders currently in the ascendant. Here we see that Britain has been connected to the world over the centuries with migrations in and out. Seven critical moments are represented here through artefacts and artistic responses.
I was struck by how the events that formed my own political education have become ‘history’. The Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970s was represented with magazine covers and posters that fought back against the racist comments from some musicians (ones I admired!) in an age when people thought it was okay to make such comments. Also here, though, is the formation of the East India Company and the start of a strong connection between Britain and India as well as the expulsion of the Huguenots from Europe. Migrations of which Britain should be proud include the refuge granted to Spanish children during their civil war of the 30s and the German Jewish children who were brought to safety to escape the Nazi regime in Germany.
The section which I liked the best was the celebration of mixed race Britain. The 2011 census showed this to be a growing area of self-identity. It is the obvious next development of a multi-racial and multi- cultural society.
Photographs, art works, personal recollections and quotes all add up to an amazing exhibition in which to get lost on a wet afternoon. I loved it. As I finished, I was struck by a huge poster with a statement below it of a young man, who might be mixed race but who was not white, who voted for Brexit. I wanted/needed to know more. Why did he? What statement does it make that he is concerned about immigration in a society where he and others like him have been beneficiaries? It troubles me still but maybe I need to be challenged in my assumptions. In any case, there was no more from him on offer.
The British Museum is something of a place of pilgrimage for me so I suppose it is fitting that, this time, my visit there was to see the exhibition ‘Living with Gods’, an exploration of how religious artefacts have helped mankind make sense of the spiritual.
As always with high profile exhibitions, the people turn out so a route around the treasures on show involves high levels of patience. This is made more important by the fact that so many of the artefacts were quite small and laid out on table top arrangements. There was an element of waiting before I could get close enough to read and see.
Yet, it was worth it. The curating of exhibitions is a skill denied me but I am always grateful to the experts who seem to know what to include, how to lay it out and in what order. Here the story of different societies and how they behave in terms of religion is set out. What is striking is that there is little time spent on what people believe; the exhibition concentrates instead on the items related to religious practice. Why worry what the motivation is, what do they do?
The British Museum is able to call upon its own collection for most of these treasures and they come from across the ages and across the world. My list of favourites includes the juggernaut from India, acquired in the eighteenth century. It is from south India where a tradition of taking deities for an outing allowed people to see them. The scale model of a real juggernaut is in the museum. I was also taken with the Tibetan Thangka, an illustration of the wheel of life used as both a teaching and a devotional tool. The Lion Man from the ice age suggests that belief is universal and a human condition. To people of faith, though, the central point must be WHAT you believe.
In London, so I went to see the Leighton House Museum in the Holland Park area. I have long been an admirer of the work of Frederic, Lord Leighton and wanted to see the oriental influences in the decoration of the house he lived, worked and died in. I arrived just as the museum opened so had the place to myself (apart from the people who worked there, of course) for the first hour of my visit. Other visitors started arriving as I finished.
Frederic Leighton commissioned George Aitchison to build him a house that could be both home and studio. Additional parts were added in later years but the central feature was the Arab Hall with tiled walls, a dome and running water into a pool in the floor. Since I was on my own I kept stepping both ways through a doorway in and out of the drawing room since it was a contrast of East and West. Crossing between them seemed to be a good way of capturing the spirit of the British artist inspired by the East. A Millais painting hangs in the drawing room and Islamic inspired tiles decorate the Arab Hall; the combination is a good evocation of the man.
Queen Victoria visited the man and his house but she probably had lots of retainers with her. I was on my own! The works on show here are interesting but his best known paintings and sculptures are elsewhere in the big national galleries. Interestingly, there is a colour study for the painting ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence’, a painting in the National Gallery that I have to visit every time I am passing that way!
An interesting fact I picked up on this visit was that he did not have his peerage for very long. He was made Baron Leighton in the 1896 New Year Honours List, making him the first artist to be honoured in this way, only to die the next day!
I have been going to this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery for 9 years. This was the tenth exhibition so I must have missed just the very first year. As usual, I was impressed by so many pictures and played the game of awarding my own first and second prizes. So often, my selection is different from the judges but, even though I bow to their greater knowledge and expertise, I use just the criterion ‘do I like it?’. It works for me.
The winner as identified by the official judges was an amazing portrait of a refugee rescued from the Mediterranean. His face conveys so many things but the context makes it a powerful portrait of hope and determination. The young man stares at the camera. The photograph was taken by Cesar Dezfuli.
My personal favourites were the two young men locked in an embrace that seems both brotherly and strong. This image by Baud Postma was on the front cover of the catalogue. The third image that impressed me was also more to do with the context. Craig Easton photographed sixteen year olds from around Britain. The subjects also wrote about themselves. Paddy couldn’t write so his sister did it for him. He ‘spoke’ about being a traveller and about the loss of his brother and then father in a powerful testimony.
This annual visit to the National Portrait Gallery has become a fixture in my year.
This exhibition in the Somerset town of Frome was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The interesting angle taken by the organisers was to place local history onto an international picture. The main part of the exhibition was actually called ‘Britain in Palestine’ and was displayed at SOAS in London a few years ago. This exhibition has a local element added with memories and photographs of Frome people who served in Palestine during the British Mandate in the police or the army or people who now live in Frome who had relatives or past connections with the country.
The photographs are black and white as you would expect and there is a large amount of writing to wade through but it is an important period. Once again, it seems, the ending of the British rule of part of the world ends in an ugly way; the complications of the promises made to both Jewish and Muslim leaders did not help matters.
The people included here were soldiers, policemen, refugees, clerics and people of faith, tourists and civil servants. Some went there because they were commanded to while others headed to the country for the heritage or the promise of a new life. The hopes of Jewish people, some desperate from the effects of war, were hard to reconcile with the hopes of the Arab inhabitants who lived there.
At the centre of the problem was a British politician who believed he had the right to make decisions about a part of the world his country ruled. Oh, the British Empire!
In Manchester on Armistice Day so I went to the Imperial War Museum North in time for the eleven o’clock two minutes’ silence. I am a frequent visitor to the IWM in London but this was my first visit to this northern version. I was impressed. It was the right place to be to mark the eleven o’clock silence.
I spent the time beforehand looking at the exhibits which focused on the effects of war on the innocents who got caught up in conflict through no fault of their own. The exhibits of the Kindertransport were particularly moving but so too were the artefacts of evacuees and the stories of families torn apart by wars of one sort or another.
The Cold War exhibit just seemed to serve as a reminder that the actions of politicians at these times lead to untold misery for so many. The museum is careful to stick to facts and not apportion blame but the inclusion of a ‘room’ specifically on the impact of war on people other than the military is a wise move.
In one corner of the museum, a doorway of suitcases acted as the perfect reminder that war always leads to upheaval and, for many, the loss of home and security.
The Imperial War Museum North is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I finally made it to the home of Rudyard Kipling, now held in trust for the nation by the National Trust. I have long wanted to visit, mostly because I like his work. The house itself is interesting because it has many of the original items of furniture. His wife had no need of the place on his death so left it to the nation.
Rudyard Kipling lived here from 1902 until his death in 1936. By this stage, he was world-famous and privacy was the main priority. Around the house are artefacts from India and artwork associated with the country. Some pieces were by his father, the artist Lockwood Kipling, made to illustrate his books. There are also prints of the Detmold brothers’ illustrations for ‘The Jungle Book’.
The house dates back to Jacobean times but Kipling came here when he was a rich man; he could afford to buy the house and sufficient grounds to ensure privacy for himself and his family. It was from here that his son John left for the First World War and here, of course, that the family heard the news of his death. John Kipling’s name is on the war memorial in the village.
At one time, Kipling was the highest paid writer in England. There is a Rolls Royce car on show here making the point that he was a wealthy man. Best of all was the study where he wrote in long hand. His desk has a view over the Sussex countryside and he worked surrounded by books, many of them about India.
This house is worth a visit especially as there is a clear sense that the writer actually lives here. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?