Category Archives: museum

Museum Review: The Avery Research Center

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I’ve recently returned from a month long road trip across the American South, from Maryland to Kentucky and back again. One of the best places I saw was a museum and archive centre in Charleston, South Carolina. Wary of supporting a tourist industry that seemed to still uncritically support its antebellum and Confederate past in order to draw crowds that longed for the problematic glamour of plantation life, I tried to spend more time in institutions that explored African-American history. The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture was one such place.

DSCN0770Housed in a beautiful brick building around the outskirts of historic Charleston, Avery originally existed as a normal school for black young people. Avery was created during the Reconstruction period in the States, the post-war period when both emancipated black people and white people struggled in a Charleston that had been ravaged by the Civil War. Since young black people could not learn in white schools due to segregationist laws that would eventually be more commonly known as Jim Crow (named after a famous 19th century minstrel character), Avery Normal Institute was created in order to train them for teaching and professional roles. The school remained open until the early 1950s, closing in the wake of Brown v Board of Education ruling. Many Avery alumni went on to become community leaders and important local figures in the civil rights movement.

In the 1970s, some of these leaders joined with the local black Charleston community to reopen the Avery Institute as a centre that spoke not only of the Avery’s history, but also that of black life throughout the lowcountry of South Carolina. Through their outreach and activism, they were able to gain the support of the state government and University of South Carolina and reopen the Avery in 1978. The new Avery, now a research and archive centre flanked by beautiful gardens near the harbour, exists as a community space that houses galleries, the Phyllis Wheatley literary and social club, a reconstructed classroom, and an archive that can be used by students and the public alike.

I went to the centre on a whim, and was unsure of what to expect. The building itself is beautiful, possessing a dignified, academic grandeur that matched the other striking European-inspired buildings in the district. Entering the side of the building, I was given a tour by the extremely knowledgeable guide that runs the front desk. Starting off with a charmingly old video detailing the centre’s history, I was given a short tour stating where everything was (you are allowed to explore the building on your own). Impressed by the many famous photographs on the wall of iconic black figures, we travelled to the top floor, which held one of the main galleries of the building.

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I was instantly hit with envy when I entered the gallery, I could see myself working there, walking the halls every day. The temporary exhibition, titled Dust in Their Veins: A Visual Response to the Global Water Crisis, was the work of the Chicago artist Candace Hunter. A series of silhouettes outlining female torsos framed the walls, some with added installations spilling onto the floor. The work created an urgent conversation around women and children around the world who suffer due to lack of proper access to water, and the issues that result from attempting to find this limited resource, from health issues to girls being forced out of education due to sanitary problems once they begin menstruation or being needed to find water. The exhibition was moving, and I could not help but think of my privilege while I held my half-empty water bottle in my hand. The anonymous torsos- representing millions of lives deferred, usually compressed into statistical phantoms by a calamity-saturated Western public- were given life and colour, imploring the audience to bear witness to their struggle. They rested starkly against the pristine white walls and warmly coloured wood floors, incongruously lit by the cheerful sunshine outside that sparkled across the harbour.

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Passing through the gallery on the top floor led to the grand staircase of the institute, where I imagined the wonder of the formally enslaved children as they entered the front doors for the first time. The walls were lined with prints of rural black women by the famous local artist, Jonathan Green and previous lectures with low country luminaries like Julie Dash. One room had been converted into a facsimile of a Reconstruction-era classroom. I wandered around the room for a moment, gently touching the small desks and wandering around the sparse interior. The other halls were filled with prints of various black history items that shifted as I turned into a new corridor. The archive was dark, closed for the day, though I tried to no avail to glance inside as I walked by.

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Walking back into the main corridor, I went into the other gallery space, which had the Africa: Masks, Music, and Motion exhibition on African masks with related ephemera. Along the walls were prints about Mandela and civil rights, creating a connection between African and African American culture past and present, a fitting symbol of the cultural traditions and struggle that formed lowcountry culture. The masks are part of the institute’s digital archives, and have been donated over time. I was reminded of other similar exhibitions that I’ve seen over the years and how much context changes how museums can be experienced. Gone was the taint of Empire-fuelled anthropological fervour (and the path of theft and mayhem that marked the way), which always lingered in the back of my mind, no matter how much I loved the vast range of artefacts that I saw. I felt a sense of happiness and contemplation when viewing the exhibition, which felt like an attempt to reconnect the community to the types of traditions that had been destroyed and forgotten during the horrors of slavery.

The Avery was one of the highlights of my trip, and I can’t overstate what a great place it is. It’s incredibly rare to have a black cultural centre that is academic while also constantly reaching out to the community at every level. There should be a place like Avery everywhere, upholding marginalised cultures and showing that it is worthy of dignity and respect.

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My first night in London, 2007

 

Museum review: Horniman Museum

For my birthday last week, I finally travelled deep into southeast London to go to quirky anthropological Horniman Museum. Sat atop a very steep hill, it was a striking building amongst quiet suburban houses and flats. In front of the building was an American totem pole, a hint of the treasures to be found inside. Next to the museum was a sprawling garden that was mostly closed for upkeep, though you could see the landmarks of east London sprawled out into the horizon, as well as a Victorian conservatory that housed the museum cafe.

 

Though small, the museum was filled with lovely bits and pieces from top to bottom. On the ground floor was the natural history room, which held their most recognised acquisition, a walrus! Since it was acquired in the 19th-century, before walrus anatomy was known, the walrus is actually over-stuffed and completely smooth. I was impressed with the massive mammal, especially since I had no idea they were so large. The displays were filled with slightly faded creatures, dinosaur bones, insects and human skulls. Another lovely touch were the Victorian, art deco features and typography that were scattered through the room.

Another room featured a photo exhibit of traditional English holidays and rituals practised in contemporary society. It was fascinating seeing ancient rituals adapted and continued in modern settings. Also interesting was the fact that so many clearly rural rituals, marking and celebrating harvests and seasons, were practised in places that had become sub/urban over the centuries. It showed an interesting juxtaposition of materials, artefacts and clothing that played with ideas of British culture, both modern and traditional. I almost wished that there was a documentary available so that I could actually see the rituals enacted as well as the interactions with the communities.

The other rooms were also packed with anthropological goodness, like the African Worlds room, which had everything from Voudou alters to Mami Wata iconography (who I love after seeing an entire exhibit dedicated to her at the Smithsonian African Art Museum a few years ago in DC) and various costumes and ceremonial figures. There were also videos in various places showing craftspeople making variations of the ceramics on display, giving small insight into the amount of work put into these utilitary items. The Centenary room had an array of pieces from all over the world, but some displays held my attention more others, such as the massive statue of a furious and bloodied Kali standing atop a rather aggreived looking Krishna, or the extremely fancy and detailed pipes.  There was also a fearsome looking torture chair supposedly from the 16th century, though it turns out parts of it were from Victorian furniture in order to make it more frightening for a Victorian audience!

 

This small collection of oddities and curious curios is perfect if you want an unusual day out in the depths of southeast London.

Museum review: Museum of Childhood

I am a museum geek and have spent my entire life in all sorts of museums, so believe me when I say that the Museum of Childhood is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It had an array of  exhibits and managed to capture that alchemy of childhood, creating environments that are wondrous without being patronising, and combining innocence with a sophisticated darkness. The building is a massive, imposing Victorian creation that is amazingly light and airy once you walk in. The day was beautiful, so the main entrance glowed in the sunlight.

Two exhibits caught my eye immediately, one was Victorian child portraiture by Julia Margaret Cameron. I love Victorian portraits, so I was completely entranced by beautiful photos of cherubic children dressed as Pre-Raphealite muses and Victorian ideals. She is also a completely fascinating artist and I didn’t realise her role in innovating photography of the time. On the other side of the hall was an amazing exhibit partly made by schoolchildren. The story of Fundevogel was posted next to a nightmarish forest of masked figures, monsters and creepy dolls.   There were also lovely drawings of toys and a toy lineup that had some old and new faces.

 

The main room was split level and was filled with all sorts of toys from around the world, including controversial historical (though not as historical as I would like) toys such as Enid Blyton’s Gollywog (or Golly as people like to say now to try and mask its extremely racist and hurtful history.) It also had some Mary Quant doll prototypes that have been added to my inspiration folder. I have always been interested in the history and creation of toys, so it was nice to see failed prototypes of well-known toys alongside folk dolls, learning toys and wonderfully crafted and well-loved figures.

 

Another fantastic exhibit was a series of etchings by the Chapman brothers. A lot of people hate the Chapmans for being part of the YBA movement and their role in helping the more sensationalist, glory-hungry aspect of the movement flourish at the expense of the actual artwork. Examples can be found here and here (warning: NSFW) However, I think to throw the Chapmans away with the bathwater is to miss the fact that they are supremely talented illustrators and artists.  Their exquisite corpse renderings and witty takes on appropriation and capitalism are perfect and this exhibit really highlighted their way of taking mundane childhood activities such as colouring books and transforming it into something that is playfully sinister.

I have already gone back a second time to see more of the museum and take more pictures. This is easily of of my favourite London museums,  so if you are in the Bethnal Green area, do stop by to see a place that captures the memories, mystery and strangeness of childhood.