Friday, 16 October 2015

The Science Museum, Visit 1

Friday 16 October 2015

The Science Museum.
Exhibition Rd
South Kensington SW7 2DD

Visiting this enormous museum is not to be undertaken lightly, and Linda and I resolved that this would be our first of several visits. It is a long time since we were here, and we were amazed at the amount of space available to this collection.  Perhaps I should say 'collection of collections' since that is what it is.

The entry hall is embellished with bicycles, perhaps to celebrate the fact that Exhibition Road outside is nominally a shared space for all of us who pay for the roads, and not just motorised vehicles. Studying the menu, we agreed to look first at the Julia Margaret Cameron photographs on the second floor, at least partly because it was unlikely to have attracted any of the many school parties which were arriving.  The other reason is the Freshwater Bay link, though Linda has not yet visited Dimbola Lodge.

We noted that there is to be a Clockmakers' Museum here soon, though whether this is the one we visited in the City of London, or a separate venture, only time will tell.

Visitor photography is not allowed in the Gallery, but Cameron's photographs are wonderful and you might feel inclined to go and have a look.  They are some of the 94 pictures she put into an album in 1864, and presented to Sir John Herschel, son of the (more famous) Samuel.  The exhibition includes her handwritten table of contents of tha album, and a couple of very faded pictures which, it is surmised, he displayed in light too bright for the fragile prints of the collodion process.

We did feel that an explanation of how photographs were taken in those days would have been helpful, and there was a brief summary about two thirds of the way round the exhibition. Here, however, is a YouTube film of an American man actually doing it, though I should warn you that he has chosen rather a heavy Blues track for his background music. He talks about the need for running water, which JMC did not have in her converted conservatory, but she did have servants, and Mary Ann Hillier, when not posing as The Madonna, or Juliet, was kept busy with buckets.

There are three main groups of photographs:  first, there are the celebrities of the day, with an emphasis on literary and artistic subjects:  Tennyson, Trollope, Holman Hunt were all her subjects, as was the now almost forgotten author Henry Taylor and artist G F Watts.  Also, of course, Herschel, with a rather Einsteinian hairstyle said to be JMC's attempt to portray the halo of genius.  'My portraits', she said, 'startle the eye with wonder and delight'. Secondly, there are posed pictures which tell, or reference, a story: several Holy Families (she was a devout Christian) but also Shakespearean scenes, and invented subjects, like 'The Flower Girl' and 'The Neapolitan'; for these, she roped in the locals to pose for her. Reviewers of her work at the time commented that her pictures often lacked crisp focus.  Her riposte was 'What is focus?  And who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?'  She saw her work as art rather than simple depiction. Of her four sons, three had problems with their eyes, and there was speculation in the signage about whether she too had some kind of visual impairment.  But some of her portraits are completely crisp, so it seemed to us that focus was indeed a matter of her artistic choice.

The third group, not from the Herschel Album, were taken in Ceylon. Julia was a child of the Raj, born in Kolkata (as we should now say;  being somewhat pro-Tamil, I am sticking with Ceylon for the other place in this story)  Her husband's wealth came from coffee plantations in Ceylon;  when coffee-blight reduced their income, they moved to Ceylon. Here Julia made various pictures of 'natives' whether in the bazaars or working in the fields. We wondered what they must have made of this Memsahib with her chemicals and boxes of kit.

The Herschel Album was rescued from export in the 1970s, and is normally housed in the National Media Museum in Bradford.  So you can either head south the the Isle of Wight, or north to Yorkshire to see more of the work of this remarkable woman.

We did not feel inclined to explore the whole of the rest of the Museum, but we stayed on the same floor and had a look at the 'Journeys Through Medicine' display of some of Henry Wellcome's collection.

We had seen an early iron lung when visiting Nuffield Place, but had forgotten just how hair-raising they were.  This one dates from 1953, when cases of Poliomyelitis were frequent and devastating.  The programme of eradication which began in 1956 means that the last case in Britain was 1984: and In the whole of Africa there has been no case since August 2014, so things look promising there.  Seeing the kit which we remember from our smallpox vaccinations reminded us that it is possible for the world to eradicate  vile diseases.
We also saw gadgets to make injection insulin more straightforward, and a prosthesis made for a young child affected by thalidomide.  Even less pleasant were the machines for early electro convulsive therapy

The rest of this display was about historic and prehistoric medical treatments, amulets, trepanning drills and phrenology kits.

Perhaps the most interesting thing was that Henry Wellcome sent his agents around the world, hunting and buying stuff for him.  One of his collectors was Winifred Blackman, but he did not trust women, so her budget for an entire expedition to Egypt was about what one of his other collectors spent per day.  A bit silly, we thought, since finding things like Parturition Chairs was obviously going to be more straightforward for a woman.

Well, that's all we could manage in one morning, so we shall be back, not least because our original intention had been to look at the industrial machines of the 18th century, before we were sidetracked into photography.

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