Friday, 31 August 2007

The National Portrait Gallery – Non-Class Visit 3 –

One of the museums I’ve always missed and regretted missing on my many trips through London is the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve taken courses focusing on portraiture conventions and so was looking to see some of both famous British persons and the work of famous British portrait painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. And perhaps interpreting some of the conventions in person; it’s very striking to see work in person that you’ve only seen as a projected slide, there’s usually a great difference of size and the NPG was no exception.

The lower floor was dedicated to current figures and had a wide variety of types of portraits including a charcoal drawing of JK Rowling and the four members of Blur in a comic fashion as pastel line drawings, which was way larger than the cd covers for Blur’s Greatest Hits it has been endlessly reproduced on.

On the second floor were many portraits I recognized, including a very poignant sculpture of Victoria and Albert (of course Victoria is responsible for establishing the original form of the NPG, the “British Historical Portrait Gallery” in 1856) and the original Bramwell Bronte painting of his sisters Charlotte, Anne, and Emily that he painted himself out of. I visited Howarth and the Bronte family home back in 2005, fully thinking that the version of the painting they had on display was real, but once I looked closely at the NPG’s it was very apparent that the creases in the canvas from when Bramwell folded it up and stuck it away were the real, cracked creases of canvas. The room had another portrait of Emily that also was the real version of one on display at the Bronte’s home in Howarth, I’m very glad I actually got to see the real ones, I do not recall any little plaques explaining that the ones on display at the home were actually in the NPG, but sometimes exhibits are misleading.

The NPG also has a large collection of Tudor portraits, including several Holbeins (Hans Holbein is the painter responsible for the main image that the public have seen of Henry VIII, the monumental hands on hips portrait). One of the rooms had portraits of Anne of Cleves and Anne Boleyn as well as very young portraits of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I as a princess. Elizabeth I’s main courtiers, or at least the ones extensively covered by the film Elizabeth and therefore the ones I remember best, were also well represented, including Walsingham and Robert Dudley, it was quite funny to see sometimes the difference between the way films like Elizabeth are costumed and the way the Lords really wore their facial hair.

The NPG really is the sort of collection that it’s impossible to see all at once, with rooms devoted to explorers, scientists, authors, and other British luminaries, and it’s never all on display, for instance Paul was available in Beatle portrait form, but John was not. The NPG also has revolving exhibits such as the current one of photographs from Fleet Street papers throughout the years and the current winners of the British Portraiture Award for 2007.

Guildhall Library

The Guildhall Library is located within the square mile that makes up the actual City of London and, accordingly, is a public library devoted to London materials including books, newspapers, and a print and art collection (some of which was on display, prints illustrating Cheapside from various eras). The library is similar to a national archive in that it holds collections such as that of the London Stock Exchange and Lloyds of London (the famous insurance company and now bank as well); the library also has family histories, Parliament materials, and English history all important in chronicling the history of London. It gets its name from its collections retained from several guilds including the Clock and Watch Makers Guild (the collection also includes materials from the guilds such as clocks). The arts collection of the Guildhall Library also has a very useful database called COLLAGE that provides images from their collection as well as a way to purchase those images, making art more available for the masses and providing details about the works the Guildhall houses; I was very pleased to see that their collection included some Hogarth engravings I had previously studied, the Beer Street and Gin Lane prints as well as having one of his prints on display in the Cheapside exhibit.

The library has moved through four different buildings since its beginnings in the 1420s, and survived a rather greedy snatch by the Duke of Somerset, he wanted a library, Guildhall had a library, he decided to take it. The collection retains one Bible that was in the original set of materials, but thankfully their collection has grown back up over time, despite more recent collection losses occurring during World War II in the Blitz that bombed out quite a large chunk of London. Currently the Guildhall Library is a public lending library, although its collections lead me to thinking that it wasn’t, a collection devoted to the city of London just sounded reference only but happily that’s not the case for those who need to do research and don’t have time to explain why or provide lots of identification such as traveling students.

Barbican Centre Library

The Barbican Library is a public library serving the Barbican Centre, multiple floors of art, music, and film with galleries, exhibition spaces, a concert hall and a greater space with residences and a café. It is very much a self-contained unit of art appreciation and so the library must reflect that within its collections, devoting large spaces to art and music.

One of the collections of great interest to me was the music collection. At the start of our lecture I noticed that our guide was standing in front of shelves of music-related dvds that I greatly wanted to peruse and very much appreciated seeing in a library; of course I also learned that because of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act they charge to take away dvds and cds because those were not specifically included in the text as being types of items required to be used free of charge. The music library has 17,000 cds as well and scores available for checkout – or that one can test on the library’s silent piano (a user can checkout headphones and then have a play).

The music library’s cd collection has its own classification system, with categories such as Classical, Pop Female, and Pop Group; the scores have their own system as well, titled the Malcolm and Reeves system so that pertinent scores could be grouped together, and as all the books in the library are, the music library’s books are classified under the tried and true of the public library system, Dewey.

The arts reading room is the other part of the library mainly devoted to the same pursuits the Barbican Centre makes available and just as in the NAL, I noticed a lot of familiar reading material. The library also had an exhibit of prints up, which reminded me of the Iowa City Public Library’s prints and paintings available for checkout, although the Barbican’s were for sale.

The Barbican Library also has one of the largest children’s collections in London with about 25,000 items. The children’s library also holds many events like story time and has previously held cooking events although that seems like not the greatest idea perhaps for an enclosed, carpeted space with running children.

The library also houses many familiar public library services such as free internet usage and courses in life skills such as technology use and literacy; and a self checkout, which I hadn’t seen yet on our jaunts through the libraries. Of course, the academic libraries we’d seen would probably become very frightened by the idea of a self checkout since no one can really check anything out of them anyway.

National Art Library

The highlight of any library trip for me will always be an art library. Having worked in one as well as being an artist and an art history student collections including art books and treasures corresponding to the world of art are always going to be very close to me. And I am quite pleased with England for having established something as useful as a National Art Library to keep and preserve and make available for use materials to new artists and those studying art and design.

I did research in the NAL before our group had their tour there, so it was quite a treat to see behind the scenes of what I’d used. I have to say that the stacks were the highlight for me as I encountered quite a few books I’ve shelved before and that I miss seeing on a daily basis. One other aspect of the stacks that I particularly appreciated was that the NAL has a classmark specifically for publications of their museum, the Victoria and Albert, which includes a lot of important exhibition catalogues and records of materials held by the museum and the library. Of course it is necessary for the museum’s publications to have their own classmark as the NAL is responsible for keeping the materials needed by the curatorial staff and any archival materials associated with the museum.

Beyond the stacks and the main rooms of the NAL where readers sit and books are distributed, our group was shown items out of the NAL’s collection of artists’ books and bindings. The NAL is also known for being an archival center for aspects of the book, such as design, fine bindings, etc. Highlights of that included a clever pop-up book of bookshelves called, not shockingly, Empty Bookshelves, an artists’ journal that was extremely colorful and embellished as well as being readable and relatable while she was complaining about a job she had to leave, and one of my favorites being a bit of a typography geek, a society lady’s scrapbook where for each location she drew the place names in very different fonts with ink and sometimes included details such as Art Nouveau leaves and vines, although as a society lady she most likely had a lot of time to put into things like that it was very impressive and looked as though she’d rarely messed up and gone back over her lettering.

Writer’s Museum of Edinburgh

The Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh was very much devoted to three important Scottish authors and had only minimal representation of any current Scottish authors. Of course the one with the most set up and devotion was Sir Walter Scott. It seems reasonable as he is responsible for preserving the Highland heritage – landscape, way of speaking, other behaviors, and putting the history out in a manner that isn’t as dry as an academic tome. I have read Rob Roy, and I didn’t entirely understand it, but from a writer’s perspective, many writers write to represent what they see lacking and certainly I could recognize the importance of that kind of preservation. I see the same thing happening with present day Scottish writer Irvine Welsh’s novels, and have a similar kind of ‘work through the dialogue’ period when reading his work as I did with Rob Roy.

Robert Louis Stevenson is very annoying from a writer’s perspective however, in the museum I learned that he was first published at 16, which made me jealous, as well as that whole writing novels that stand the test of time and are really quite treasured by many people and well adventuresome. I was not however, jealous when I saw that he was also nicknamed ‘Smout,’ that one a young writer could live without.

The last of the top three Scottish writers covered by the museum was Robert Burns, who previously I only associated with addressing the haggis and being possibly of the Romantic period of literature that I generally despise. However, I learned that he’s also responsible for timely phrases like ‘O what is death but parting breath’ and ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ which to me have always been impressive bits of poems. The museum also had a cast of part of his skull which was an unusual display item when compared with the diorama of Sir Walter Scott’s sitting room and all the photographs of Robert Louis Stevenson.

National Archives of Scotland

The National Archives of Scotland are a valued destination for anyone wishing to trace their family history through Scotland. As a Scottish Smith, I was wondering how complicated it would be to find out what that side of my family’s last name was before they altered it to Smith. I know it was altered because a literature class I took at the U of Iowa informed me that during the Jacobite revolutions in Scotland, many Scottish families changed their last names to Smith (previously there weren’t any Scottish Smiths, although that seems unlikely as it’s third in the list of widely held last names) after Scotland lost, one assumes this was to fit in and I personally don’t really approve of that decision, it seems less than patriotic, but maybe it was to be sneaky. The archive currently has three buildings – the General Register House, the West Register House, and the Thomas Thomson House (which is running out of storage despite opening latest in 1995) and hold records of vast types of transactions like church records, parliament papers, wills, families’ holdings, tax records, and more. It is no surprise that they are running out of storage space and looking to build another site.

During our lecture on the archives we were shown materials from their collection including a handwritten cookbook with a lard-riddled recipe for puff pastry (typical but hard to imagine cooking today directly with lard), a document with one of the first mentions of being paid for something with whiskey from 1494, a poem that apparently school children still learn today about the British Rail system that had some vitally true lines, and a letter from Mary Queen of Scots to her mother, which was just lovely as I used to have a set of queen paper dolls that included her and so far she’s the only one of those whose signature I have now seen.

National Library of Scotland

The National Library of Scotland is housed in the city centre of Edinburgh and is home to the John Murray Archive, which was the main focal point of our lectures about the library. John Murray was involved in publishing over several generations and the family sold his archive of manuscripts, letters, books, and equipment to the National Library.

The John Murray Archive has some serious importance and significance to the world of books and the world in general as it contains works and items from authors and thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen. Because of the importance and because there are so many relatively boring displays of important textual materials in existence already, the library wanted to take a different approach on exhibiting pieces of the collection. The exhibit now involves all the important things about exhibiting text, like actual pieces of text and low lighting to decrease damage possibilities, and explanations of what the viewer is looking at these exhibits bring the people and the text together with replications of artifacts and interactive screens where one can magnify the text of letters and manuscripts, and read small blurbs about the objects, as well as compare their own height with that of an author as the disembodied clothing of the authors hangs at their height inside the case. The idea was to bring the world that John Murray experienced in publishing to ‘life’ but of course that’s not directly possible and the disembodied version was very amusing and exciting.

One of the things I found most entertaining at the exhibit was an interactive table where one could go through the process of publishing. Picking from several words based on titles published by Murray, a group and I created the ‘The Tortoise Twins Murder Journey of Love’ and then picked a cover, a genre, and who to market it to; then the table informed us that it was destined to be a cult classic. My only complaint about that little game is that it did not include the real life part of publishing where once you finish writing a book and it gets accepted into a publishing house, you have to wait a year for it to come out. I was expecting the machine to ask us to come back a year later and see how we did.