Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter Wins the Art Fund Prize

Bideford, Devon by David Bomberg

Hooray for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, which has just won the annual Art Fund Prize for museum of the year. This is a huge and foppish feather in its cap, one to be rakishly shown off at every available opportunity. It’s a validation of the extensive and admittedly costly revamp which has utterly transformed the interior and revealed features of the Victorian building which had previously been obscured (the lovely ironwork pillars, for example). Visitor numbers to the museum have been impressive, and it has been welcomed back after its four year closure with great enthusiasm by the citizens of Exeter. The first exhibition in the new, light-filled gallery in the extension to the rear of the old building, Into the Light, was a marvellous way to start, with paintings by Monet and Pissarro juxtaposed with British artists loosely falling into a post-impressionist mould like Vanessa Bell, Spencer Gore and Walter Sickert. The current exhibition on the ground floor draws on the museum’s own art collection, and includes Turner’s bucolic watercolour of Totnes from the downstream perspective of the Dart valleyside, David Bomberg’s recently acquired glowing semi-abstract 1946 seascape Bideford, Devon (actually painted in Instow), and an old favourite, Edward Burra’s atmospheric, rain-streaked depiction of the wild, primitive side of Dartmoor, a late watercolour from 1974. Home Dartmoor by Garry Fabian Miller, a display of photographs focussing on nature and the universe on both small botanical and large astronomical scales, all of which were made without the aid of a camera, has been a fine contemporary art exhibition (and it ends this weekend if you haven't seen it yet), demonstrating the museum's commitment to new work. The ethnographic galleries contain a marvellous array of objects from around the globe, including a full set of samurai armour which sits guard in its individual glass box, a large maroon and gold statue of Buddha (helpfully inscribed on its base with the legend ‘sitting Budh or Buddha – a Burmese idol’ by whichever Imperial adventurer brought it back to Blighty), a full sized totem pole recently carved by visiting native Americans, a large and colourful new tapestry from Egyptian artist Mahrous Abdou depicting fields and villages around the Nile, and some wonderful examples of Inuit clothing (white and with hoods, of course), tools and crafts. This gallery, always a good, hushed contemplative space during the week (as long as its not half-term), got the official seal of approval from Sir David Attenborough himself after its refurbishment a decade or so ago, the legendary naturalist giving a talk to support its opening and proclaiming it one of the finest collections in the country. The legacy of all those Majors and clergymen retiring to their westcountry seats after their exploits in the East and the Afric continent. The local history galleries are also marvellous, and very accessible. You can actually touch the medieval oak statue of St Peter crushing the grimacing Devil beneath his feet which looked down on the junction of High Street and North Street for so many centuries. People are always peering over the large city model made in the early nineteenth century, and based on childhood memories of the end of the previous, looking for familiar streets and buildings and divergences from the city they know, ravaged by wartime blitz and equally destructive post-war planning. There's also a carved oak figure from the Iron Age, some 2500 years old, an object of immense, electrifying power (although non-conductive of any ordinary force) - little more than two stumpy legs, an erect prick and a head with crudely carved features (nose and shadowed eyes but no mouth), its wooden surface bears the cracks and crevices of geologic time (the cranium ridged into a vertically-furrowed frown). It is hauntingly suggestive of long forgotten rituals and beliefs, and it must have been unnerving for whoever unearthed it at the clay quarry near Kingsteignton where it was discovered in 1867 to be faced with its blank-eyed gaze. The prize comes with £100, 000 attached, money which should ensure that imaginative initiatives such as the Gripping Yarns day, which saw actors performing short monologues written by local writers and bringing some of the museum’s artefacts to life, are continued. Its success and recognition by leading figures of the artistic and heritage establishments should also demonstrate to a council which often seems fixated on the retail aspect of the city at the expense of all else that there is a need and desire for cultural centres as well. This is great news for the museum and for the city too. I look forward to the exciting possibilities which it promises and the historical and artistic riches which will follow.

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