Spotlight on… The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Breaking away from the London-centric focus of this blog, largely due to my inability not to write about digitally reworked paintings depicting their sitters with now ubiquitous Covid-19 face masks, but more on that later! It houses an encyclopaedic collection of over half a million objects spanning the ancient world, paintings, drawings and prints, applied arts, coins, medals, manuscripts and books. Typically offering free entry to the public, but temporarily closed due to the pandemic, the museum has made an original and cogent contribution to digital museum offerings. In April they launched their Look, Think, Do virtual family activities, utilising objects from their collection including a coffin lid of Ramases III from 12th century BC Egypt, a Mosque Lamp from Damascus circa 1355 and an engraved printed plate titled ‘American Flamingo’ produced between 1827-30. May saw them announce The Fitz Stitch seeking 45 craft volunteers to contribute squares to a quilt which will be hung in the Courtyard Entrance by the end of September 2020, all pieces will be linked to the collection but in as abstract or literal a representation as participants would like. Building on their already successful Dancing in Museums initiative working with older people in isolation, they have addressed wellbeing and released seven films which all begin with a guided relaxation followed by an exploration of a painting by Monet, Sisley, Alma-Tadema or Renoir amongst others. Last week they also announced ‘Masterpieces 2020’ where renowned paintings have been digitally altered and released as greetings cards reflecting the current circumstances; Belgian artist Alfred Stevens ‘La Liseuse’ shows his subject wearing a delicate lace face mask whilst reading her book, pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais’ ‘The Bridesmaid’ features an added yellow silk face mask matching her dress, Renaissance master Titian’s ‘Venus and Cupid with a lute-player’ shows all three figures wearing face masks not just the reclining nude, and Dutch artist Jan van Meyer’s ‘The Daughters’ depicts the four girls each with a unique face mask matching their dresses. Though the grand neo-classical building and collection may have a traditional reputation, these virtual offerings highlight their progressive and dynamic capacity.
Eccentric, fun, and an organised-hoarder are what spring to mind to describe American artist Mark Dion, having visited his retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery. Opening with ‘The Library for the Birds of London’, a new commission featuring live (yes live!) birds in an aviary with a tree at its centre and books littered across the floor and branches. This is surrounded by a variety of hunting lodges; each very different and filled with furnishings and belongings of their fictional inhabitants ranging from a librarian to a dandy. Several are off limits and you can merely peep in through the windows, whereas others allow you to climb the ladders and explore the miniature abode. Upstairs the idiosyncrasy continues with a recreation of a naturalists study complete with photographs, drawings, and prints as well as a unicorns’ horn half unpacked in a crate! The next gallery houses the ‘Bureau for the Centre of the Study for Surrealism’ mocking a museum curators office brimming with artefacts, archival material and ephemera which you catch snapshots of through office windows or the glass in the door. This is followed by a modern-day cabinet of curiosities where a set of wooden drawers is filled with neatly ordered bottle tops, discarded credit cards, broken plastic toys, bits of shoe, and other debris washed up by the Thames and collected by Dion and his team. As you push through heavy felt curtains to enter the last gallery, the dark space cleverly draws attention to the three glowing installations under UV light, each one filed with 3D sculptures of living and extinct animals, shells, bones and inanimate objects. After viewing a show which deliberately tries to classify animals, people and objects it would be interesting to hear how Dion views himself – as an artist, anthropologist, archaeologist, explorer, or a hybrid of all of those things. See what you think before the 13th May when the exhibition closes.
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Approximately 40 kilometres west of Chania old town, you’ll find the town of Kastelli Kissamos. Despite being smaller, it is no less rich historically, and its name alone bears both the ancient Greek (Kastelli) and Venetian (Kissamos) monikers. A narrow road littered with tavernas, traditional fishmongers and cafés leads to a square where The Archaeological Museum is located, in an imposing repurposed Venetian monument known as Diikitirio – ‘the Headquarters’. The museum focusses on the areas’ Minoan, Hellenistic and Roman periods and displays household items, pottery, coins, jewellery, gravestones (stele), relief sculptures, marble free standing sculptures and mosaics. Minoan artefacts from excavations at nearby Nopigia which date back to 9th – 8th century BC dominate the opening gallery, and the historical development of western city-states in Crete is explained through the evolution of these objects from primitive Minoan artefacts onto more advanced examples from the Hellenistic era (4th – 1st century BC). This development is evident in one of my favourite items on display in the museum; a Hellenistic marble sculpture of a Satyr in which the sculptor has managed to capture the impish nature of the subject to perfection. As you move to the second floor, a small excavation taking place under the stairs of the building itself, highlights how inescapable archaeology is in this area! The second floor is devoted to findings from Kissamos, and houses two stunning floor mosaics from local Greco-Roman urban villas. The first is huge measuring 9.7 metres by 8 metres and features Dionysus surrounded by hunting and drinking scenes associated with Dionysiac worship, and the second depicting Horae and the four seasons is more humble in scale but in perfect condition. Despite only stopping in Kissamos to buy a drink, I’m so pleased I did, and got to experience another archaeology museum putting local history in the limelight with some outstanding finds.
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A sense of history pervades Chania old town; layer upon layer from early Minoan ruins to later Classical Greek and Roman archaeological sites, Byzantine remains, the Venetian lighthouse and shipyard buildings, wonderful examples of Ottoman architecture, as well as evidence of the destruction of World War II all survive. In the centre of all this you’ll find The Archaeological Museum of Chania, aptly situated in a stunning stone building and former Venetian monastery of St. Francis. The museum focusses on the city’s earliest Minoan civilisation through to the Roman period – comprising pottery, glass, coins, jewellery, metal ware, sculpture and mosaics. The vast majority of finds come from excavations in the city itself or nearby, which helps contextualise and humanise the artefacts on display and offers visitors a sense of where and how these items were used by people thousands of years ago. As you explore under each archway numerous standout antiquities can be seen in glass cabinets, notably a clay tablet dating back to 1450 BC inscribed with Linear A script (an early Minoan text academics have still not deciphered), decorative gold disks from a female burial site, as well as an array of seal stones offering lucid images and comprehension of each era. Outside of the display cases you can find numerous painted clay sarcophagi from cemeteries across Western Crete, stone stele (grave stones), a mosaic floor depicting Dionysos and Ariadne from the 3rd century AD, and a marble bust of the Roman emperor Hadrian. A final treat is provided in the small garden which houses an unusual octagonal ablution fountain from when the building was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman period. Costing just two euros admission, the museum not only provided much needed relief from the Cretan afternoon sun but also offered a fascinating insight into Chania’s rich and unbroken past.
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