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November 30 2011

From Rabbie to Rubens

To celebrate 10 years of free museum entry, Chris Smith, the politician who ended charging, introduces the big name curators and gallery-goers we asked to pick their favourite work. But what is yours? Have your say below

I remember, as a student, being very struck by a poster arguing against an attempt by Edward Heath's government to bring in museum charges. It said: "We the undersigned oppose the introduction of admission charges" and carried the signatures of Van Gogh, Titian, Turner and some 50 other great artists. It made me realise a simple truth: that free admission is all about giving everyone, no matter what their means, the chance to see the greatest works of art, science and history that our nation has.

Over the following three decades, charges were indeed brought in. Some national collections valiantly held out against the tide; but most succumbed to charging, and in some cases the charges were high. To bring a family to the Science Museum or Natural History Museum became a substantial financial undertaking.

When I became Secretary of State in 1997, I was determined to change this. I believed passionately that these great treasure houses belonged to us all, and should be available for free, for ever. It took me four years to achieve that: convincing reluctant colleagues; securing additional funding; persuading some museum directors; achieving the removal of VAT. It was worth it, though; and the surge in visitor numbers – up by 150% over the last decade – has proved it.

On the day free admission began, 10 years ago, I was invited to cut the ribbon and throw open the doors at the Science Museum. About half an hour later, I was standing in the foyer, and a man approached me, carrying his daughter on his shoulders. He looked up at her and said, "I want you to say thank you to this man. It's because of him we're able to be here today." That, too, made it worth it. Chris Smith

Nicholas Serota, director, Tate

One of the great atrocities of the Spanish civil war was the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German air force, lending their support to the Nationalist forces of General Franco. Picasso responded to the massacre by painting the vast mural Guernica, and for months afterwards made subsidiary paintings based on one of the figures in the mural: a weeping woman holding her dead child. Weeping Woman in Tate's collection is the last and most elaborate of the series. A portrait of Picasso's mistress, Dora Maar, the painting is an extraordinary depiction of female grief and a metaphor for a Spanish tragedy.

The Sir John Soane's Museum is one of my favourite small museums. The eight paintings in William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress series can rightly be described as one of the great masterpieces of British art. Created by Hogarth, the great 18th-century painter, engraver and satirist, they give us an acute glimpse into London life of the period, and the antics of its faded aristocracy and nouveau riche. The paintings were originally hung at Soane's country villa, but were moved back to Lincoln's Inn Fields (now the Soane museum) in 1810. They were hung in a new picture room at the rear of the house, where they remain today.

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster

If they start charging for museums I will go spare with rage; it's been a great leap forward. The Cholmondeley Ladies (1600-10) at Tate Britain is one of my favourites to drop in and see. I take the grandchildren to visit them all the time. Everyone can relate to it: they're like reassuring family friends – "Let's go and visit the Cholmondeley sisters." It's so lovely how very different from each other they are, but how much the same. You get pleasure from them: they're women; they're siblings; they look beautiful; they're a reflection of an earlier time; they're all the very simple things you enjoy in a painting. And they must have their own stories: the painting is full of possibilities.

Nicholas Penny, director, National Gallery

The painting most appropriate for this particular anniversary is Rubens's Peace and War, the proper title of which is Minerva Protects Pax from Mars – though I hate that title. It was a diplomatic gift from Rubens to Charles I, when the painter was acting as an envoy for Philip IV, but nevertheless seems to me a painting for everyone. It is allegory, it's portraiture, it's animal painting, it's fruit-and-vegetable painting, it's got quite a lot of landscape, it's got the female nude, it's got men in armour. It was a gift from the Duke of Sutherland to the newly founded National Gallery about 200 years after it was painted, an amazing gesture of support: the Duke was donating one of the most valuable paintings in London.

The work of art I always visit when I go to the Victoria and Albert museum is a white jade cup that is known to have been used by Shah Jahan, one of the great Moghul rulers of India. Curiously, it's not that different in date from the Rubens: the middle of the 17th century. It reminds me of the game animal, vegetable or mineral. It shows the transparency as well as the hardness of jade, but at the same time incorporates animal and vegetable: the lotus flower at the foot, and the head of an ibex, which forms the handle. It epitomises the art of so many different cultures although it's a quintessential, high quality product of Islamic civilisation. This and the Rubens are two pieces of court culture completely accessible to the man in the street.

Lauren Laverne, broadcaster

At the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London there is a Dutch doll's house from the 1600s. It's very beautiful and the craftsmanship that went into it is mindblowing. It's also interesting because it shows how a house ran at that time, in that place. The idea behind it was to teach little girls how to become wives; it illustrates how much of our culture is indoctrinated into us through play and leisure.

Whenever I go into the British Museum, that ceiling in the atrium makes you look up, and as soon as you look up like that you're like a kid again. It puts you into an inquisitive, exploratory frame of mind. That's what I like about the Museum of Childhood, too: it's a lovely blend of history, mystery and fun.

John Leighton, director, National Galleries of Scotland

The portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, made in 1787, is probably the best-known portrait in our collection, which opens free to the public today. Like many people, I saw it first on a shortbread tin, but when you come face to face with the original it's astonishingly vivid, and you can feel that spirit of democracy and generosity Burns is famed for. The artist left it unfinished because he was afraid to lose what he said was a superb likeness. In among all the grand, eloquent portraits of powerful people in this gallery, this small, modest picture speaks very loudly indeed.

My favourite work in another gallery is from the National in London. It's another portrait, this time by Jacques-Louis David of Jacobus Blauw, a young Dutch ambassador trying to negotiate a peace treaty with France. It's a very direct rendering of the clarity and youthful idealism people associated with the French revolution. If you imagine that this is 1795, with guillotines crashing all over the place, you'd have to be a particularly skilled diplomat to negotiate with the revolutionary government. The portrait gives no indication of that hardship – instead, you're drawn in by the rendering of the materials, the steely blue jacket with a hint of his hair powder on the collar, and this pink face that engages you so directly you feel you've come eye-to-eye with this young Dutchman.

AL Kennedy, author

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow has a wonderful full-length statue of Robert Louis Stevenson. He's a writer I hugely admire, and the piece seems to catch something of his spirit in a way photographs of him don't. When I first moved to Glasgow and was very much a tyro writer, I would occasionally wander off to Kelvingrove and potter. The building was – and is – beautifully uplifting in itself, and much warmer than I could afford to keep my flat. I would always end up spending a while with the RLS statue. It's not idealised like his memorial in Saint Giles, or the standard depictions of the great and good; he looks like someone who thought and travelled and had a lean kind of energy and efficiency about him. I find it inspirational.

Christopher Brown, director, Ashmolean Museum

I'm going to be a little opportunistic and choose an object from our new Egyptian galleries. I'm hugely moved by a remarkable mace head we have that dates from 3,000 BC and comes from Hierakonpolis. It's called the scorpion mace head and depicts an emperor. He's wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and he's hunting. I'm just enormously impressed by its sophistication as a piece of early sculpture: eat your heart out, Donatello.

I worked for many years at the National in London. I particularly love a late painting there by Giovanni Bellini, the Madonna of the Meadow. It shows the virgin with Christ in her lap, but it's a premonition of the Pietà. It has a beautiful, desolate landscape on the left, and on the right a prosperous landscape with a beautiful view of the area north of Venice where Bellini was working. When I worked at the National, one of the great joys was that people would drop in to the gallery between trains at Charing Cross, to come in and see something. You don't feel: "Well, I've spent £5 – I've got to make it worth my while." You can just go and look at a single picture. That to me is the key to free admission.

Michael Dixon, director, Natural History Museum

The Archaeopteryx lithographica is the most valuable single fossil in our collection. It is a famous snapshot of evolution in action that demonstrates conclusively that modern birds are descended from dinosaurs. It has huge scientific, historical and financial value. Elsewhere, the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum is fundamentally important to our understanding of archaeology and ancient cultures.

Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director, Serpentine Gallery

We don't have a permanent collection, but the Serpentine Pavilion series, now in its 11th year, allows the public to enjoy the work of international architects who haven't yet completed a building in the UK, for three months over the summer. My favourite pavilion? I couldn't possibly say!

The Turbine Hall commissions at Tate Modern are an extraordinary rollcall of some of the greatest practitioners of today. Louise Bourgeois's spider, Maman, and I Do, I Undo, I Redo, launched the whole programme in the most remarkable way. It's wonderful to see how artists address that space.

Sandy Nairne, director, National Portrait Gallery

One of our most enigmatic portraits is the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare by John Taylor of 1610. It's wonderfully mysterious. Taylor is not an artist we know a great deal about, and there's been plenty of speculation as to whether this was taken from life. For me, the idea of why we look at portraits of figures in history is embodied in this picture. I look at it at least two or three times a week. We refer to it as our No 1 because it is the first portrait that entered the collection in 1856, given by Lord Earlsmere.

I often go and look at Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at the Age of 34 next door in the National Gallery. It's not very different in date from the Shakespeare – it's 1640 – but is the absolute complement: whereas the Taylor is all about Shakespeare, this is about Rembrandt himself. Like all great self-portraits, it makes you question who you are and absolutely crosses time – that sense of self-examination. It's just the most brilliant painting, and to be able to just walk in and look at it is a fabulous thing.

Iwona Blazwick, director, Whitechapel Gallery

One of my favourite exhibits currently on display here is the Bloomberg Commission: Josiah McElheny: The Past Was a Mirage I'd Left Far Behind. Large-scale, mirrored sculptures are arranged as multiple reflective screens for the artist's interpretation of experimental abstract films. What is interesting is the way McElheny has responded to the site, which was previously the reading room of the former Whitechapel Library, a haven for early modernist thinkers such as Isaac Rosenberg. The library was built as a "lantern for learning"; McElheny has used the moving images and illumination as central motifs.

Elsewhere, the Sir John Soane's Museum is a delight, with important works from Hogarth to Canaletto set among drawings, historical architectural models and other fascinating antiquities.

Martin Roth, director, Victoria and Albert museum

Our medieval and Renaissance galleries opened two years ago to house one of the world's most remarkable collections of treasures from the period, marking the end of the first phase of our plan to modernise the museum. They host the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy, with an exceptional group of sculptures by Donatello who was the greatest sculptor of his time. I particularly admire this pieceThe Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter (1428-30) which combines two different scenes from the Gospels – one of the finest surviving examples of his astonishing low-relief carving technique.

Gauguin was one of the most important artists of the 19th century, and his experimentations with new styles and radical expression continue to inspire people today. Vision after the Sermon is one of the masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery collection and this dramatic work changed the course of the history of art. Gauguin travelled the world and it's fascinating to see the influence of many forms of art in his work, from Japanese prints to ceramics.


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August 24 2011

Call of nature: when art imitates life

A recent trip to Kew Gardens revealed to me that John Ruskin was right: the loveliest art has its roots in the natural world

The great Victorian critic John Ruskin believed all beauty comes from nature. For him, art that takes anything but nature as its pattern is ugly, monstrous and immoral. You might think such ideas would make him a savage critic of today's art, were we to somehow reanimate him and send him along to Tate Modern. Certainly his name and ideas have been quoted by fierce denouncers of contemporary art, such as Peter Fuller. But are Ruskin's ideas really so antipathetic to the art of today? I recently had a revelation at Kew Gardens in London that illuminated a whole new way of thinking, Ruskin-style, about art and nature.

It's amazing how profoundly Ruskin's ideas shaped British attitudes to culture and nature in the 19th century. In his book The Stones of Venice, he argues that all architectural ornament should represent nature, and gives examples of good things to carve, including fish and snakes. The builders of the Natural History Museum in London followed his instructions to the letter, peppering its interior with realistic replicas of animal creation. The museum's founder Sir Richard Owen believed, like Ruskin, that nature is God's work – which made him a fierce opponent of Darwin.

Whatever you believe about nature, 19th-century depictions of it are very rich, from this magical museum to the paintings of Turner. The glass houses at Kew also embody this Victorian passion for nature – the Palm House is a kind of scientific installation, a representation of a jungle made of living jungle plants. Ruskin stressed the curves and irregularities of nature that he observed hiking in the Alps and the Lake District. But what about the repetitions and symmetries of nature?

At Kew you can look closely at a superb collection of living cacti, kept in a desert-warm glasshouse. They are fascinating – especially when you look closely at the prickles. On larger cacti it is easy to see how strangely these are composed and arranged. Each cluster of spines has the same number as every other cluster, and these are spaced with awe-inspiring regularity. It is as if each cactus has been constructed in a factory. Like mineral crystals, these plants exhibit wondrous symmetry. But what is bizarre is the way they are stacked up, unit on unit, like … well, like minimalist art.

Looking at these cacti, I found myself thinking of the art of Donald Judd. No wonder the American minimalist chose to place a permanent exhibit of his work close to the desert at Marfa, Texas. Right across the American South, from Houston to the Roden Crater, minimalist artists have chosen to show their work against a backdrop of the natural world.

The world is not as Ruskin saw it. For one thing, Darwin was right. And as Darwin was right, it means the forms nature can take are boundless and strange. If nature is unlimited – and now visible to us right down to its genes – so are the possibilities for an art that imitates nature. Let's hear it, then, for Ruskin, Judd and the minimalist cactus.


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April 06 2011

Schoolchildren visit the Natural History Museum's butterfly exhibition – in pictures

Children from a school in Hackney are among the first visitors to the Sensational Butterflies exhibition



February 14 2011

Science Weekly podcast: The birds and the bees (X-rated version)

WARNING: this podcast contains frank information and graphic details about animal sex. Again.

Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at Oxford University, goes right to the limits of science. We then take it a bit further as we look at some of the themes in his new book On Being which is out soon.

Peter is giving a lecture on the limits of science at the Royal Institution on 22 March.

We go behind the scenes at a new exhibition which is the X-rated version of the birds and the bees. They're all at it like rabbits.

Sexual Nature is at London's Natural History Museum. We've put together a beautiful audio slideshow to give you a flavour of the exhibition.

In our show-and-tell section, we discuss a study that has drawn up a geographical map of the incidence of allergies; a universal flu vaccine; plus the International Year of Chemistry - and why the discipline often gets overlooked.

Subscribe for free via iTunes to ensure every episode gets delivered. (Here is the non-iTunes URL feed).

Meet the Guardian's crack team of science bloggers:

The Lay Scientist by Martin Robbins
Life and Physics by Jon Butterworth
Punctuated Equilibrium by GrrlScientist
Political Science by Evan Harris

Follow the podcast on our Science Weekly Twitter feed and receive updates on all breaking science news stories from Guardian Science.

Email scienceweeklypodcast@gmail.com.

Guardian Science is now on Facebook. You can also join our Science Weekly Facebook group.

We're always here when you need us, listen back through our archive.



June 24 2010

Summer of protest over BP arts sponsorship

Prestigious institutions defend links with oil firm as artists and green activists plan action

The summer season of events at Britain's most prestigious galleries and museums will be picketed by artists and green groups intent on portraying BP's arts sponsorship as a toxic brand.

Protests are planned next Monday by an eco-alliance styling itself "Good Crude Britannia" at Tate Britain's celebration of its 20-year association with the international oil conglomerate.

Climate change activists, artists and musicians opposed to the fossil fuel industry are determined to highlight BP's link to the arts in the context of the company's international embarrassment over the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the main recipients of BP's corporate largesse – the Royal Opera House, Tate Galleries, British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery – today issued a joint statement defending the connection and signalling their determination to preserve the commercial relationship.

The calls for cultural institutions to distance themselves from the oil industry comes at a time when government spending on the arts is about to be slashed amid efforts to cut public debt.

Many of Europe's leading artists, donors and cultural supporters are expected to be greeted at the glittering annual Tate summer party by Lord Brown of Madingley, chair of the Tate and former head of BP.

The planned demonstration next Monday follows protests this week by a group of artists calling themselves the Greenwash Guerrillas, who distributed leaflets outside the National Portrait Gallery at a BP-sponsored arts event. Greenpeace campaigners followed up with an "alternative exhibition" at a private viewing at the gallery.

The oil company has refused to divulge how much money it donates to the arts in Britain but it is thought, along with Shell, to be one of the most generous donors. In 2005 the figure was estimated to be more than £1m a year. BP also sponsors the Almeida theatre, the National Maritime museum, and the Science and Natural History museums.

"Organisations like the National Portrait Gallery help shape public attitudes towards the big issues of the day and if the gallery is serious about climate change then the sponsorship deal with BP has got to end," said Robin Oakley, Greenpeace's campaigns director.

In a separate development, musicians including Lady Gaga, Korn, Disturbed, Godsmack, Creed, and the Backstreet Boys said they planned to boycott BP on their national tours this year.

"It is absurd that the Tate should be sponsored by a company that is as irresponsible and polluting as BP," said Matthew Herbert, an electronic artist and composer who will headline the jazz stage at Glastonbury this weekend.

The oil industry has been a target for artists and activists for many years. Shell was widely boycotted in the 1990s for its involvement in the Nigerian government's decision to hang the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Last month a group called Liberate Tate entered the gallery's main turbine hall and released dozens of black balloons attached to dead fish in protest against the Gulf oil spill. Gallery staff had to shoot the balloons down with air rifles.

The press opening of the BP Portrait Awards was gatecrashed this week by a film crew from the Don't Panic collective who distributed wine glasses filled with thick black liquid symbolising the spill.

"In the past Imperial Tobacco used to sponsor the portrait awards," said Heydon Prowse, one of Don't Panic's film-makers, "then it was considered no longer acceptable. Perhaps the same should be considered now for BP given its attitude to regulation and tar sands."

The Tate gallery said it had an ethics committee which regularly reviewed its sponsorship deals. "BP is one of the most important sponsors of the arts in the UK supporting Tate as well as several other leading cultural institutions. Tate works with a wide range of corporate organisations and generates the majority of its funding from earned income and private sources. The Board and Ethics committee regularly review compliance with the policy," it said.

The National Portrait Gallery said: "The sponsorship of the annual Portrait Award by BP is now in its 21st year and their support directly encourages the work of artists and helps gain wider recognition for them."

A joint statement – from the Tate, Opera House, British Museum and Portrait Gallery – added: "The income generated through corporate partnerships is vital to the mixed economy of successful arts organisations and enables each of us to deliver a rich and vibrant cultural programme.

"We are grateful to BP for their long-term commitment, sharing the vision that our artistic programmes should be made available to the widest possible audience."

Suggestions that the massive bills being shouldered by BP for the clean up operation in the Gulf might force it to scale back on its support for the arts were dismissed by the company. Many of the deals are subject to long-term contractual agreements. Abandoning them would generate adverse publicity at a sensitive time.

"Everyone has a right to protest," a BP spokesman said, "but we feel sad they would choose to do so since we are doing the best we can to deal with a difficult situation.

"In the States, we have offered grants for research on the impact of the oil and detergents and there are people looking to get that sponsorship. I'm not aware of any arts institutions in the USA or the UK withdrawing [from sponsorship deals]."

Maurice Davies, of the Museums Association, which represents UK galleries and museums, doubted that any institution would immediately disown BP given the firm's record of sustained commitment to the arts. "Museums make judgements about who is a suitable sponsor," he said. "No one would take [money] from tobacco firms or arms companies. BP has a long and distinguished record of sponsorship. No one will rush to judgment on a company that has been a loyal supporter for such a long time. I don't hear a national clamour for BP petrol stations to be shut down."


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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