Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago

I was lucky enough to go to Chicago for work last week – for three days – literally a flying visit from the other side of the Atlantic! It was my first visit to the city, and I was struck by how progressive, liberal and balanced it felt with a diverse population of white, black, Hispanic as well as a China Town, Little Italy, Polish Downtown, Greek Town, well dressed professionals, homeless veterans and the buzz and grit of cosmopolitan city life that makes any Londoner feel at home. However, a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) was a powerful reminder of the civil rights and segregation issues which have plagued America, and the Chicago area is no exception. The current exhibitions by Dawoud Bey and Carlos Javier Ortiz & David Schalliol both highlight problems with integration; Bey’s two poignant bodies of work tell the story of three Klu Klux Klan members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 killing four fourteen year old African American girls, and the ensuing violence that followed as a consequence. This is revisited in a 2012 series of black and white portraits in which Bey captures images of children the same age as those who had died, alongside portraits of adults at the age the children wold have been in 2013 (the 50th anniversary of the bombs). Bey’s work is coupled with Ortiz and Schalliol’s Chicago Stories, a more contemporary exploration of similar issues via evocative images of isolated buildings and those who live in them which explore the legacy of the Great Migration and the continued demolition and resettlement of African American communities across Chicago’s “black belt” in the south and west of the city where black residents were limited to living, but have since created thriving communities which are now being destroyed. The staff are both helpful and knowledgeable, entrance to both exhibitions is free, and I would highly recommend dropping in before 7 July when the shows close.

For more information visit their website

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The Historical Experience: Benjamin Franklin House

A narrow Georgian townhouse at the back of Charing Cross train station has been standing since 1730, provided lodgings for Benjamin Franklin (face on the $100 bill, Founding Father of the United States, scientist, diplomat, inventor of unusual musical instruments and more!) for sixteen years between 1757 and 1775, and has been a museum since 2006. To enter, visitors ring the doorbell much like you are paying a visit to someone’s home, are led along a corridor of original wooden floorboards and panelling, and down the stairs to the basement where the ‘Historical Experience’ begins… a small orientation room comprising information boards, an artefact display cabinet, and even human remains from the anatomy school which also operated from the building help introduce you to the House. After a short video, Polly (the landlady’s daughter and close friend of Franklin whilst he was lodging at the House) leads visitors to the Kitchen where flagstone flooring, a Victorian cooking stove, and views of the sunken basements are cleverly integrated with projections and voices that Polly continues to interact with throughout the House to help tell its’ stories. Visitors are then led upstairs to the Landlady’s Parlour, Card Room and finally Franklin’s Parlour – all complete with authentic features from the floorboards, to the shutters on the windows, marble fireplaces, and even the green paint on the walls specially mixed to match flecks of the original paint revealed through spectro-analysis. Typically I find costumed interpretation horribly uncomfortable, however it is immediately obvious that this House employs a professional actress and provides a theatrical ‘experience’ executed to a high standard. Likewise, the fact that it is largely unfurnished lends itself to this type of visitor offering, and it was refreshing to focus on the original features rather than trying to navigate your way through a cluttered house full of replica furnishings.

For more information visit their website