Radical Museology, or in praise of Penelope Curtis at Tate Britain

In the last few years, it has become deeply fashionable for critics to attack Tate Britain and it’s soon-to-depart director Penelope Curtis. “Intellectually impoverished,” says Jonathan Jones, who believes it should be more fun or else “give away its collection and close down”. Last year, Waldemar Januszczak described Curtis as a “disaster” and called for her resignation.


However, I’ve come to love Tate Britain and despite some missteps, think Curtis moving to Portugal will be a loss to the sector. What is the future for Tate Britain? No more fun/strange/engaging/bewildering hangs, blockbuster exhibitions and a layer of dust slowly settling over the permanent collection? How sad.


Some time ago, I read ‘Radical Museology’ by Claire Bishop. I then read it again. It’s a good book that made me think a lot about museums and the patterns of behaviour congealing the life blood of a once interesting public gallery sector.

Bishop quickly identifies the main trends in big museums, particularly in contemporary art museums: Block buster exhibitions with corporate sponsorship and lots of tie-in souvenirs, ignoring the permanent collection, and underestimating the audience. These elements lead to museums essentially becoming venues for the display of major exhibitions while the poor permanent collection (barring a few major works that shift postcards) gathers dust.


Bishop outlines three museums which try and do something genuinely different. Impermanent permanence through the ongoing rehang of the permanent collection; Galleries contextualised with social history items such as protest posters; Exhibitions that foreground the impact of directors’ tastes in acquiring objects.


I see some of that radical spirit in the decisions taken at Tate Britain which take it head and shoulders above the echo-y theme park at Bankside. Phyllida Barlow’s ‘Dock’ was more exciting a response to the space of Tate Britain than Tuttle’s flappy fabric was to the Turbine Hall. Kenneth Clark and Folk Art demonstrated better (and more hands-off) curatorial practice than Polke. The spaces are used far more effectively. Even the café is better at Pimlico.

My favourite thing about Tate Britain? That ambitious rehang of the permanent collection. Not perfect, no, but vibrant, interesting, challenging and diverse, in the best possible sense. Individual rooms show short displays of Henry Moore or Victorian portraiture. The whole building feels alive and exciting in a way that Tate Modern does not.

The pressure is on many national museums to deliver exhibitions as slickly, and with as much instant popularity, as the latest Apple product launch. Tate Britain took a different route and was lambasted by the broadsheet critics. It tried to challenge establish tatste and risk a new approach. That approach worked for me, and so I’m sad to see the ‘radical’ approach of Penelope Curtis leaving for Portugal.


A short guide to the Reykjavik Gallery Scene


Ah, Iceland – the Northern Lights, glaciers, waterfalls, geysers and hot springs. And a capital city filled with interesting galleries and museums and design spaces. Sadly, I’m yet to visit the art galleries at Akureyi, Garðabær, Hafnarfjörður or Kópavogur, so will focus on the galleries in the capital city Reykjavik.

Reykjavik September 2010 4

The capital is dominated by two institutions: Reykjavik Art Museum (Listasafn Reykjavíkur) and the National Gallery of Iceland (Listasafn Íslands). Both these institutions comprise several institutions and distinct collections. As werll as showcasing some fairly chgallenging contemporary Icelandic and international art, they preserve and display the work of key figures in Icelandic art, like Erro, Sigurjóns Ólafssonar and Jóhannes S. Kjarval.

The ‘Harbour House’ is located about 30 seconds walk from the tourist information centre in downtown Reykjavik. It’s an old office and warehouse space for Reykjavik’s harbour which was converted, with style, into an art gallery in 2000. Lots of concrete, distressed metal and large windows, but the building has a warmth, flexibility and human scale that can be lacking from contemporary art spaces.

I’ve been to the Hafnarhus several times and there’s usually at least two exhibitions on at anyone time. The curator’s tend to select challenging solo and group shows and recent displays have featured a retrospective of Icelandic video art, contemporary Icelandic painting, music in modern art and, most recently, a solo show of American artist Cory Archangel.

Alongside this stimulating, if not testing, fare, there’s almost always a display of Erro – the Icelandic Pop Artist. Best enjoyed in small doses, he’s an underrated artist who has some great, raw, vivid moments which can be lost in his prolific output.


A ticket to the Hafnarhus will also get you into Kjarvalsstaðir and Asmundarsafn. Both are worth a visit for the buildings alone – airy, welcoming exercises in Nordic modernism. The collections and displays are well worth a look, too. Kjarval, especially, is a superb landscape painter who infuses his Icelandic scenes with light, colour and expression.

The National Gallery overlaps with the Reykjavik Art Museum in some respects – three buildings, permanent collection but no permanent displays, and a challenging contemporary exhibition programme. Recently, it showed an exhibition feature 20 groundbreaking Icelandic female artists and ‘A Kassen Carnegie Art Award 2014’. The second was in response to the cancellation of the Carnegie Prize, which rewarded and encourage contemporary Nordic and Scandinavian artists. A collective decided to recreate the planned exhibition by using a Chinese based company to produce low-cost copies of the works that would have featured.

The National Gallery also looks after the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum and the Ásgrímur Jónsson, both in central Reykjavik.


Beyond the two big institutions, The Einar Jónsson Museum, with its stark building, great views and sculpture garden, is worth visiting. The building shows the work of Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson, who again, is perhaps less well known outside Iceland than he should be. His work has that early 20th century mythic muscularity which can get a bit overwhelming, but it also has a lightness of touch and real originality. At the very top of the building is the artist’s living quarters and study, which offer beautiful views on sunny days.


The ASÍ Art Museum is just round the corner from Hallgrímskirkja, at the top of the hill. It was founded in the 1960s and combines showing the best of Icelandic modern art with another challenging exhibition programme.

There’s a lot of challenging exhibitions at Reykjavik’s art galleries – if you want something more crowd pleasing, there are lots of small tourist galleries with lava pottery and silk screen prints of the Northern Lights. At the bigger institutions, the exhibitions are informative, cutting edge, thought-provoking and ambitious, considering Reyjkavik has a population of less than 200,000.

The boom in tourism has no doubt helped Iceland’s economy recovered, but it does pose a challenge to the country’s contemporary art and galleries scene. Firstly, how does even the best art, design and craft compare to the natural wonders of mountains and aurora borealis? Would tourists do Reykjavik like a cultural European city break and ignore the awe-inspiring landscape for art and pop-on restaurants?

Secondly, will the insatiable tourist appetite for Lopi sweaters and lava rock candle holders have an impact on those emerging designers and makers trying to sell their handcrafted art?

The emergence of the Spark Design Space, Kling and Bang, Crymogea, the Wind and Weather Window Gallery and other spaces is positive. Hotel rooms might be outstripping the need for studio and exhibition space in 101 Reykjavik, but a determined group of artists, designers and curators are finding ways of putting on great shows that stimulate and inspire.

So if you are planning a visit to Reykjavik, set aside some time to investigate the capital’s cultural heart. Art and aurora borealis are a wonderful combination.







The Nazi Spoon, or a personal reflection on the Holocaust

For as long as I can remember, my family has owned the Nazi spoon. It’s a large, roughly made steel spoon. On the front, there are no markings. On the back, it is imprinted ‘GK&F 42’ and has the swastika and eagle wings of Nazi Germany.


When I was very young, I wasn’t aware of much of my family history. We sang ‘happy birthday’ in Polish, had a strange and elaborate meal on Christmas eve, and seemed ever so slightly out-of-step with the corner of South West England we lived in.

As I grew older, the gaps filled and story got more and more complicated. My family had been decimated by World War II, had ended up in labour camps in Siberia, before being brought to the UK as ‘displaced people’. They weren’t Jewish, so didn’t face Nazi Germany’s genocidal impulse. They were Poles in eastern Poland, which was at times under Nazi and Soviet control, and faced forced expulsion when the country was divided up in the early stages of the war.

I learnt these stories, learnt this history, and learnt it well. It explained the sadness and fear that sometimes hung over family members, the sense of dislocation, of loss.

Perhaps what I didn’t understand is that such stories were not common in the UK. Or, at least, were not commonly discussed. At about 15, I was in history class. We had one of those cool teachers who had watched ‘Dead Poets Society’ one too many times. In a flippant, glib manner he was introducing World War II. He mentioned Nazi Germany. He mentioned Hitler. He laughed at the Polish cavalry troops. He mentioned Auschwitz.

“My great aunt was in Auschwitz,” I said out loud.

Education is not a place to discuss the emotional impact that history has, and my comment was greeted with awkward silence and the addition of another layer to my ‘weird loner’ persona. There was no place for my teacher or fellow students to file this information, because Auschwitz was something that happened to other people, to people we don’t know, a long time ago. The war stories we shared were of the Battle of Britain, of D Day and Churchill. Unless to justify and gild our victory in 1945, the concentration camps were a distasteful, even obscene topic not appropriate for public discussion.

But my great-aunt was in Auschwitz. She survived, although not for long. She had a number tattooed on her arm. I never knew her.

My grandparents and aunts and uncles were in Soviet camps, forced to work, half-starved, half-frozen and beaten.

At the end of the war, in a confusion beyond human understanding, they made a circuitous journey to the safety of the United Kingdom via Iran, Islamabad, Uganda… a sightseeing tour of a dying empire in a succession of overcrowded, barely adapted cargo ships. They docked in Britain, were placed in camps, and dreamed of the day they could return to their farms and homes in the Polish countryside. They never did.


I’m not sure when the spoon came into their possession, in what camp or on what ship they ended up having to eat using a spoon emblazoned with a swastika. Was it a trophy, the spoils of war or simple convenience/

Over time, I’ve wondered what to do with the spoon. sadly, like many things with a connection to the Third Reich, it would be worth good money for a collector. Should it go to a museum? Should I destroy it? I don’t decide. I’ll retrieve it from the back of a cupboard, look at it, then bury it away.

As a curator, I believe that objects can possess great meaning, but I’m not sure this spoon would speak to anyone else. It wouldn’t tell them about my great-aunt, my grandparents, the great aunts and uncles and aunts and uncles who died in cold and fear and hunger and violence during World War II. It wouldn’t tell them about my grandparents, transported through Europe and Asia to a series of remote Allied camps. It wouldn’t tell them how my family, Polish farming stock, ended up in England and worked and studied and kept a couple of chickens in their small garden as a last link to the countryside they left behind. And it wouldn’t tell them about me – a product of a Europe destroyed, divided and finally reconciled in a series of uneasy truces.

It’s Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow, and the news will be filled with heart-breaking stories and images. Towns will fall silent. There will be the usual calls for relativism. The doubters and deniers will try to make themselves heard. There will be the lingering sense, once again, that these were things that happened to other people, long ago and far away.

And I’ll look at the spoon and remember how my life was touched by the Holocaust, how many lives were destroyed by the Holocaust and about the millions who are not here now because of a history that happened to people just like us.

Reality Questioned at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


This is a short review of a small but very decent and free exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It comprises about 10 works of modern British works and 1 painting by the Iranian/US artist Tala Madani.

Despite its size and less than perfect exhibition room, the painting selection is excellent and includes some less well known works by Henry Moore , Christopher Wood, Roger Hilton, Ben Nicholson and David Bomberg.

(c) Jack Smith; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This is Jack Smith’s Night Sky, a gorgeous and richly texture abstract in shades of brown, deep blue and creamy white. It’s a small work, but intense it its brushwork, palette and composition. For me, it’s one of the stars of the show, offering a nicely energetic counterpoint to Hilton’s more restrained abstract nearby.

(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This is Tala Madani’s strange but interesting ‘Manual Grid’, an absolutely massive work with a smooth, controlled surface. The restrained colour in the grid echoes a nice Ian Hamilton-Finlay print on an adjacent wall, which is far more playful than his often over-cerebral text works. I’m not sure if the scale and context of Madani’s work helps the exhibition. It’s a recent acquisition (I think) so Bristol may have felt duty-bound to squeeze it in.

There’s a very nice drawing by Henry Moore from Swindon, displayed next to one by Barbara Hepworth.

At the top of this post is an early Bomberg which is the first work you see in the exhibition. It’s tiny, but so full of life and dynamism. It’s a gem of a picture.

If you are in the area, it’s worth a visit as the museum also has an excellent ceramics show on at present.

An honest guide to a career in museums

Going off track this week, I thought I’d address something that I’m asked about a lot in my real life job, and that’s how you get a job in a museum. When at work, there are lots of helpful, positive and constructive things I tell the enquirer. But in this post, I share a more honest version of working in the museums and galleries sector. Here goes:


So you want to work in a museum. Good for you! Who needs money anyway?

She's got another 5 of these in her bag

She’s got another 5 of these in her bag

The Qualifications Arms Race

Working in the museums world has got incredibly popular in the last few years, which we can’t just put down to the ‘Night at the Museum’ films, which are actually a tiny bit inaccurate. At the same time, the universities have been pumping out an every growing number of graduates wanting to work in museums. So to stand out from the crowd, pretty much everyone in that crowd goes and gets 1 or 2 postgrad qualifications. Maybe even a PhD. Consequently, most people entering the profession are overqualified, or at least in possession of qualifications beyond the needs of most entry level jobs. This sucks, but does make break-time conversations very high-brow. The ability to write and research will help too. Hopefully.


Most people start their careers by volunteering. Volunteering props up most of the museum sector. That said, people are now volunteering for longer and longer before getting paid work and there are lots of former paid jobs repackaged as voluntary, unpaid roles. These are often branded as ‘internships’ and are annoyingly listed on jobs pages.

There was an outcry some months back when a voluntary curator position was advertised and the applicants needed a postgraduate qualification. This had been coming for quite a while – expecting more an more from unpaid staff while dangling the ever shrinking carrot of future paid work over their heads.

If I’m being honest, volunteering is still quite a good way of getting experience to pad out your CV and hopefully do something interesting and fun. But I’d advise against any wannabe future museum worker feeling guilt-tripped into doing huge quantities of unpaid work for months on end.

Speaking as someone who has shortlisted an interviewed and recruited staff? That paid job at WHSmiths or the box office of the local theatre is far more use than volunteering 5 days a week in the director’s office of anytown museum. And you weren’t exploited. As much. You can also use the money you earn to buy books, visit other museums and conferences. Just package it well on any application. Mention proactiveness. We love that.

Slightly more than an annual full-time museum salary

Slightly more than an annual full-time museum salary


Museums do not pay much. £22,000 for a full time job in central London requiring a Masters, minimum? Yeah. Welcome to the sector.

There are two main reasons for poor pay – Museums have little money but lots of people want to work for them. So wages stay low. As mentioned above, museums make heavy use of volunteers, so however little you are being paid, there’s someone who would probably do your job for free.

It’s a bit rubbish, but unless you are a professional cat burglar, you don’t work for a museum in order to get rich.

Look at those evil bureaucrats... bureaucratising...

Look at those evil bureaucrats… bureaucratising…

Working for ‘The Man’

A lot of museums are actually owned and run by councils, local authorities and governments. So if you work for a museum, you will probably work for the sort of larger organisation that is regularly criticised by the local paper, local politicians and angry people at bus stops.

As well as all that museum stuff, you will also find yourself needing to know about Service Level Agreements, Data Protection, Committee Systems, Internal Budgeting Processes, Performance Management, etc, etc, etc. Also, your IT system will be rubbish.

Actually, this is where a previous job with a restaurant company or high street store can come in helpful – you’ll be aware of corporate structures, processes, balancing personal politics with the workplace culture… or not.

Sometimes the bureaucracy can be overwhelming and you’ll never quite know why it takes so long to get a lightbulb changed.

But you’ll also see that what’s left of the public sector is there to help people and try and make life less awful, and it’ll warm the cold cockles of your heart that there are still places that see museums as a vital public service that exists for the wider public benefit.
Also, knowing about this stuff will really help when applying for jobs.

Networking (aka moaning about budgets over coffee)

95% of people who work in the museum sector are lovely, helpful and unnecessarily generous with their time, skills and ideas. I have no idea why, but it’s an incredibly decent workforce.

Wait… so I manage people now?

OK, so somehow you’ve applied for a load of jobs, and your qualifications, awareness of public sector issues, decent qualifications and lack of materialism has bagged you a paid job. Well done.

But wait! What happened to all the fun museum things you used to do? Well, once you are actually paid (and not just in cups of tea and nice references) you’ll be the person who manages other volunteers and staff. As a former volunteer, you’ll find yourself very protective and supportive of your volunteers. You will make them tea and organise birthday cards. They will adore you and work hard and follow you into battle, if needed.

But managing people can be quite tricky as well so, I don’t know, maybe read a book on management. Something short with lots of pictures.

Oh, and do some coaching and mentoring training. That stuff is gold.


Everything else

So the money’s bad, the budgets are small and most people you meet won’t know what you do even after you’ve explained it with charts and finger puppets. You have ten graduate degrees and a secret passion for nitrile gloves that you can’t share with anyone. Why on earth would anyone want to work for a museum?

Because it’s great. It’s really, really great.

When you first get excited by history or art and you look through books and see photos of paintings or ancient axe heads or mummies or whatever, you work at a museum and you actually get to look after the real things. You move them around, clean them, display them, tell people about them, it’s fab.

You write a paper on a subject you passionately care about and maybe 10 people read it. You condense all that knowledge into a children’s quiz trail, and 10 ,000 people do it. Super fab.

Exhibitions… exhausting but one of the most inspiring, interesting and creative intellectual challenges you can set yourself.

Meeting artists. That’s good.

Oh, and actually inspiring others? Amazing.

So I’m aware that this post if probably not a super helpful guide to acing interviews and applications,. So, in conclusion, be passionate, realistic and keep trying, and you’ll get there.

Reflections on Artes Mundi 6, at National Museum Cardiff (pt 1)


My first exhibition of the year was a trip to the thought-provoking, well curated and totally free Artes Mundi exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. Artes Mundi 6 opened in Cardiff back in October 2014, which was when most of the installation, performance and pop-up events took place. The main exhibition is still on until the 22nd February 2015, and is well worth a visit as it brings together some really interesting installation artists from around the world, unafraid to tackle some big and pressing themes.


I don’t feel the museum in Cardiff gets anywhere near the credit it deserves for the quality of its art collection. Those in the know might be aware of their excellent Impressionist and post-Impressionist holdings, but the gorgeous galleries (all light wood flooring, friendly gallery guides and stylish seating) contain some excellent works by Lanyon, Sutherland, Richards, Hepworth, Gwen and Augustus John. It’s a fabulous 20th century collection which continues to acquire some interesting pieces.

But that’s for another time. My main focus this time was on the Artes Mundi show, which took over several large spaces over two floors. The finalists are listed above, but those represented in the exhibition are Theaster Gates, Renata Lucas, Omer Fast, Carlos Bunga and Renzo Martens. I’m hoping to catch Ragnar Kjartansson at Penarth before the end of February. I’ve seen his work before it helped me overcome my usual agnosticism towards video art.


The first room featured Theaster Gates. Sadly, the spinning goat installation wasn’t working. However, the rest of his installation was moving and mystical I avoided the temptation of the text panel until the end as his work seems best appreciated on an instinctive and spontaneous level.

I grew up Catholic, which explains a lot, and this display brought the phrase ‘divine mystery’ to mind. The assemblage include a Free Mason’s beaker, a religious calendar, an incredible video projection showing a soul shattering performance of Amazing Grace, a statuette of the Virgin Mary sheltering beneath a roof, and two assembled, totemic objects. The connection, to me, felt like the divine mystery which underpins so many religions: those which prioritise the not-knowing, blind faith and half-seen truths.

This was a profound, engaging installation which lingered in the mind for some time afterwards.


Carlos Bunga has responded to the architecture of the main gallery with a huge and almost unphotographable assemblage of duct tape and cardboard struts. It’s an interesting work, which makes a clever but quite limited point about materiality, solidity, temporality etc, ie big thing that looks strong but is actually made of tape and card. That said, it uses the space well and has and has a real clarity and discipline about it.


Renata Lucas. You were supposed to shift bits of the floor about, but ask staff first as there were health and safety implications. Couldn’t be bothered.

Visiting Museums: A Year in Review

Latvian National Gallery

1. Blogging about museums and exhibitions is fun and enjoyable, but apparently I get distracted by real life quite easily. So, sorry for the updates. I’ll try and be better this year.

2. Exhibitions are getting really expensive. Polke was £15, as was Kiefer and most of the other big London shows.

3. Travel costs are getting beyond a joke. I live in the West Country and return train fare to London with tube is around £80-100, so I’ve visited London far less often this year.

4. Regional museums are struggling on despite the cuts and doing some interesting programming. Hat tip to Bristol’s MShed, the Wilson in Cheltenham and the Holburne in Bath for doing some great exhibitions in 2014.

5. Reykjavik has a great visual arts scene. I went to Iceland twice this year and loved their galleries and art spaces, especially the Reykjavik Art Museum and ASi.

6. I got into ceramics in a big way this year.

7. I also started buying art by living artists this year.

8. I finally climbed aboard the social media waggon. Despite their misjudged Allen Jones show, the Royal Academy (and Tate) are very good on twitter.

9. I did three exhibitions this year and kicked a@rse in a positive, curatorial sort of way

10. I went to my first art fare.

Happy new year everyone, and I’ve already started planned my visits so look out for more posts soon.