Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Sir John Soane's Museum

I didn't really know what to expect of the Sir John Soane's museum and after visiting it I still don't really know what to think of it. I liked the quirkiness of it being tucked away and having to discover where it was, and the feeling of entering someone's house and exploring their belongings. However, I found it a little dark, with a lack of information, and none of the objects really grabbed my attention, even though I can understand the importance and beauty of them.

The display is completely different from a gallery like the Tate, as within this museum it is hard to tell where the objects start and end. Some of the objects continue up the walls and onto the ceiling, and the decoration seems to all blend in. There are bookcases filled with old books amongst objects on display, and it is difficult to verify which items are more precious than others. The lighting is quite dark which in a way feels like you are stepping back in time and into John Soane's lifetime, however the further down in the house you went the darker it was, and actually quite hard to see things in detail. In a way the museum is more similar to Roger Hiorn's Seizure, as it is more about looking at the house as a whole rather than focusing on selected items on a wall like in Francis Bacon. Labelling was sparse, I couldn't make much sense of why certain things were labelled and other wern't, but if there had been more information like in the British museum I probably would have stayed longer and been more interested. The labels were hand written, which gave the sense the objects were part of a personal collection rather than plonked in a large museum. The purpose of the museum is to get a sense of who Sir John Soane's was, and as the website explains he set it up so that 'amateurs and students' in architecture, painting and sculpture could visit his house after lectures, allowing them easy access to his wonders.

In 1806 Soane began to arrange his collection so his students could begin to visit his house and his objects. In 1833 Soane negotiated an Act of Parliament to preserve the house and collection for benefit of visitors and students, and on his death in 1837 this act came into place. Since his death, each successive curator has tried their utmost to maintain Soane's arrangements and wishes.

From visiting the website, you can see that the museum is about history and telling a story. There is a link to the National Portrait Gallery to see images of Soane, and start to learn about who he was and what he did. You start to understand the context of the museum and the collections. The objects are listed, with no images, and there are larger descriptions of some particular items. As for other advertising, the museum is signposted from Holborn station, but rather discreetly.

The objects housed within the museum are all along the theme of architecture, painting and sculpture, although you could argue the house and its decoration itself are part of the collection. There were cases and cases of books, old clocks, sculptures mounting the walls and ceilings, paintings and portraits, tiles, furniture, stained glass, casts. The objects ranged vastly in where they originated from and in what time era for example Ancient Egyptian, Medieval, Renaissance, Oriental, Classical etc.

The display of the museum was in terms of room within the house. The objects were not clearly categorised like in other museums, however there were grouping of sculptures, tiles, paintings etc. I found the groupings to be quite random, but this may have been because of my lack of knowledge of the history. Unlike other museums were things are neatly displayed in casings, the items grow from the walls high up onto the ceiling. You have to keep looking around you to fully explore the collections. Some items are in glass cases, but there isn't much logic to why they are rather than others. The collection seems to have the same amount of value the way they have been displayed. The objects do flow in the way they have been displayed but it is certainly not as clear as other museums. Perhaps this is an advantage, however I would have appreciated more information.

Only selected objects have labels, which made me think perhaps these were more important and precious than others. The labelling seemed to be quite random, with hand-written brief descriptions simply displaying where the item was from and what era. There was little information about who made the item, the context and reason behind it, what it was doing before Soane collected it. It was a bit of a mystery as to what each object was about.

There was some information about how Soane acquired certain objects, such as the Astronomical clock, which explains it was bought after the death of the Duke of York (1827). However, I would have appreciated more of this type of information to understand how these objects landed in London. It is clear that Soane owns the objects, but did he get given them/buy them/in what country/from who? The website does explain this a little better, but as it has no pictures of the items it is hard to piece the two things together.

We can assume that Soane didn't make the objects as the old sculptures and Egyptian antiques are obviously before his time, but it would have been useful to find out more information about who actually did make the objects and why. However, again once you look on the website it does have descriptions of where the items were made etc. The context in which some of the objects would normally be seen and used is obviously very different to how they are displayed, for example the Egyptian items. However in the Painting room, it is far more understandable to see old paintings displayed like they would have been in an old home as apposed to a stark white modern museum.

Overall, I left the museum feeling a little confused. I would have appreciated more information about the collections, however I can understand and see why there was a lack of labelling. It is a different experience to going somewhere like the British museum, it is more of a journey and somewhere to explore for yourself. Roger Hiorn's Seizure wasn't full of labelling and information, but perhaps because I had more of a understanding about it before I went I was able to understand and appreciate it more. From an artist's point of view, the John Soane's museum is a place you can be inspired by and draw from, without worrying about the overloading information and what labels are trying to tell you, but you can interpret the items yourself.

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