Light years away

…—… SOS © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall

 

Fittingly, I’ve book-ended the Bruce Munro installations at Waddesdon Manor, visiting only the first and last years of his exhibitions, since a ‘proper job’ meant I was unable to get to the intervening open evenings. And so it was a pleasure to accept this latest invitation to see the paths his dreams in light have taken.
Not for Bruce – not here – the comfort of ‘pretty’. In any case, illuminated alliums now hang in their thousands in municipal Christmas decorations across countless towns and cities and his installations represent so much more than lights in a shopping precinct. This year, 2015, Bruce seeks to capture the zeitgeist by questioning our consciences and the extent of our charity. *

“The effect is stunning… it halts you in haunted tracks”

If that seems an austere approach at Christmas, it isn’t – visually at least. Bruce’s ethereal, elegiac and engaging installation glows through the shrubbery and his sounds echo across the gardens like mythical sirens calling passers-by. But as you make your journey towards the sounds, the giant tree ferns lining the path loom through the darkness, their white winter fleeces looking for all the world like bandages wrapped around dreadful wounds. Once you’re standing alongside the site it is apparent the music is a series of segue-ways from pop to rock to opera, transmitting simultaneously from over 100 single-person tents, paying homage to the charity Shelterbox. The sound and light show lends the tents a disco feel, until without warning, the nylon canvasses shot through with the purple, blue and red are punctured alarmingly by white light accompanied by the ditditdit, dahdahdah, ditditdit of more than 100 SOS messages.

“The …–––… of more than 100 SOS messages”

This voyage of son et lumière, Bruce explains, has been inspired by the desire to couple his work with a specific charity and the teen memory of twiddling the dials on the radio to find a favourite station (he had to replicate some of the sounds with actors, since the BBC wouldn’t grant him a licence to use any original recordings). It’s all manufactured, of course. Anyone hovering around the same age as Bruce will remember not only the distant Morse code messages but the buzz of white noise and the seemingly meaningless repetitions of a five-note tune transmitting mournfully across the airwaves. But for all that the tents don’t house refugees, the effect is stunning nonetheless. It halts you in haunted tracks.
Get away from the crowds for a moment if you can, and take in the installation alone. For it is only when you stop that the sound of your own humanity cuts through life’s hubbub and Bruce’s brightly lit tents encourage your empathy for fellow humans.

SOS © Bruce Munro 2015
…—… SOS images © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall

NB: Bruce Munro’s light installation is part of the Winter Light at Waddesdon Manor Christmas season running from Wednesday 11 November to Sunday 3 January (closed 24–26 December).
The seasonal decorations have been created in 20 rooms, including the Bachelors’ Wing, and around the manor’s exterior. Feature table settings, Christmas trees and room tableaux continue the theme of Lights & Legends, all with a backdrop of the matchless Rothschild Collection and the manor itself.

©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear
©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear

*If anyone cares to delve further into the history of the manor, during the Second World War, the Rothschilds moved into the Bachelors’ Wing, leaving the main house to children evacuated from London.

To find out more visit the Waddesdon Manor website.

More on Moore

Henry Moore Foundation. Miners at the Coalface
Henry Moore, Four Studies of Miners at the Coalface, 1942. Photo: The Henry Moore Foundation archive. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation.
Tunnel shelterers Henry Moore Foundation
Henry Moore, Study for ‘Tube Shelter Perspective: The Liverpool Street Extension’, 1941. Inv. HMF 1649. Photo: The Henry Moore Foundation archive. Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation
Hill Arches. Henry Moore sculpture at Waddesdon
Hill Arches 1973, reproduced by kind permission of the Henry Moore Foundation Photo: Mike Fear

The last of summer beckoned us over to Waddesdon Manor – a quick enough and largely traffic-free cycle ride from here even if it does involve a hill or two. It was the exhibition of 100 of Henry Moore’s drawings at the Coach House that attracted us (though there’s much more to Waddesdon Manor, if you have the time to go regularly). We’ve been trying to get over to see From Paper to Bronze all summer and felt it was this weekend or never, before the doors close on October 25.

As so many of Moore’s monumental sculptures feature prominently in urban and accessible spaces, his name is associated with a recognisable style. What may be less well-known to those of us used to seeing his statues in parks, precincts and on university campuses was his ability as a draughtsman. On entering the exhibition you’re immediately struck by the serenity of the double sculpture King and Queen as they oversee the space with a quiet but imposing presence. Originally intended for an outdoor landscape, they also work well close-to – Moore paid meticulous attention to the delicate detail of the couple’s hands and feet and the view of their backs. For my part, I was particularly pleased to see an industrious spider had set up home in the King’s crown, lending him a benevolent air.

The evolution of the man from youth to twilight years is expressed through his artistic eye.

But for all the statues’ authority, it was the depth in the drawings on display that struck me most. Moore was an inveterate sketcher who produced thousands of such works, his output varying in quantity and quality according to his age and purpose. The evolution of the man, from directed youth to influenced young scholar, to innovative master, before he settled into the unchallenging sketches of his twilight years, is expressed through his artistic eye. The exhibition’s set-up along a timeline gave it a palpable wistfulness, I felt. Through the drawings I could trace the vigour of youth, the confidence of middle years and the decline into decrepitude (Moore suffered arthritis in old age). His work reflected his moods, from love and admiration through despair and anguish to hope and on to acceptance. Most striking for me were the designs commissioned for textiles and the drawings he made during his period as a war artist, recording the extraordinary nightly scenes in the London Underground and in the coal mining pits of Yorkshire.
Maybe the autumn winds and angle of the sunlight lent the gallery a melancholic mood that day, but I was left with an impression of a way of life lost and wondered what today’s artists, viewed in 30 years’ time, will have left the next generation, either in the way of monumental art, teaching foundations or pure visual pleasure.

If you can’t get along to Waddesdon it’s worth a trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park which Moore helped to found or a visit to the Henry Moore Studios in Hertfordshire.

NB: Exhibition details

From Paper to Bronze runs until October 25, after which the manor adopts its Halloween programme over the half-term holiday. It dons its annual winter festival lights and looking forward to Christmas and this year’s Bruce Munro installation.

*After checking in at the new visitors’ car park cyclists can pedal all the way to the top of the hill and use the cycle racks in the staff car park. It’s well worth the extra effort for the views across Aylesbury Vale and beyond and the thrill of the return journey down the other side of the hill.

An afternoon at Windmill Hill

SP_A0140James finally found a free Friday afternoon this month to visit the artworks and architecture at Windmill Hill, so I’ve retrieved this blogpost from the archive, written on a windswept and wet opening day.

Sandra Kessell

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a sneaky preview of the latest attraction at Waddesdon Manor. Not, as you might think, a new piece of art bought by the renowned collector Jacob Rothschild, whose family built the manor – but instead a glorious new building. Designed by Stephen Marshall Architects, the cynical might suggest that such a breathtaking location and, presumably, budget, ought to bring out the best in any architect worth his salt, but whatever your viewpoint – inside, outside, aesthetic, architectural, structural – it is a triumph of the kind only a love of the English landscape, combined with skill and vision, can create.

Add to its already charmed pedigree items from Lord Rothschild’s modern art collection and the fact it will be open to the public and available for hire and you can see why the art world, architectural…

View original post 123 more words

The Mummies Return

In celebration of Rick Mather’s architecture and his visionary work on The Ashmolean, I’m reblogging this: The Mummies Return

Sandra Kessell

A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up…

View original post 1,149 more words

Less Tiger Mum, more Lioness: less Helicopter Parent, more Safety Net Provider

“They’ve f***ed it up, your mum and dad, they didn’t mean to, but they did.”*

My colleague, Chris P, more of whom later, crosses his arms when he speaks to me. I think he sees me as something of a Tiger Mum, that apparently dreadful kind of parent who pushes her kids into doing things they don’t want to do, but which she believes they ought to have accomplished. As if any pushing of my children (opinionated beings who can stick up for themselves, all three of them) ever had any real effect. I gave up efforts to put my daughter into dresses when she was three, after a monster tantrum (hers) left us both exhausted and tearful, eyeing each other up from opposite corners of the room, the hated floral thing discarded on the floor. She does girlie now, but she ain’t about flounces, or flouncing.

My youngest son has had serious attitude since the terrible twos blended into the awful tweens. Funnily enough, as an older teenager, he’s happier in his skin. He’s no less uncompromising in his outlook (his headmaster once told me H was the most arrogant boy he had ever come across, though that was before H was found to be dyslexic and using his brains to mask his difficulties), but frankly, I’d hate him to be a doormat and you should never mistake the silence of a stiff upper lip and self control for mute-faced, mulish self-importance. Even my eldest son, a model of apparent calm and conformity, is no pushover. I’ve never forgotten seeing him in the First XV’s crunch match of the season, standing nose-to-nose with another prop on the rugby field, (of course, I wanted to handbag his opponent, what mum wouldn’t?) or watching him setting himself squarely to face me to tell me he wasn’t going to go to university, it just wasn’t for him.

Was I disappointed? Yes, a bit. Did I accept his decision? Well, of course, just as I accepted said daughter’s decision to enter medicine rather than music (she’s a cracking little singer and trumpeter and I really thought she could make a career of it). Did I facilitate T’s move in with his girlfriend at the tender age of 19 in a city 170 miles away? Erm – yes. Though I didn’t want him to go, and I miss him daily, that’s where A is at uni and I recognise all birds fly the nest some day, in their own way.

So why did I prickle at Chris P’s latest WordPress posting about helicopter parents and his mention of The Ride of the Valkyries? Whilst I don’t see myself as either, if I were, I probably wouldn’t recognise the description and certainly wouldn’t apologise. But I will admit to being a parent who watches her kids’ trapeze acts and high-wire walking feats while holding a safety net out underneath. Do I expect them to fall? Nope. But if they do, I hope they’ll bounce. Do I have a life of my own? You’d better believe it.

Chris writes about a survey conducted with students in which they were asked if their mothers ever gave them careers advice. A whopping 70 per cent said yes, they had. But I’d have been more surprised if that 70 per cent said they slavishly followed the advice given. Allowing students to profit from 25-plus years’ more wisdom is just the first part of letting them go. The only way I could really get my kids to listen to me was to wait until we were driving to or from one of the many out-of- or after-school events they had signed themselves (and as a consequence, me) up to and then give them the benefit of my opinion. And hearing advice is not adhering to it.

Then there’s the apparent wrong-headedness of parents taking their kids to university open days and the theory that this is about control – or helicopter hovering. Hello? Part of me wants to point out that having spent years taking my kids to Tumble Tots and swimming lessons; standing outside music rooms while they scratched and parped noisily and tunelessly at instruments; sitting in concert halls listening to the excruciating awfulness of other people’s darlings’ performances; driving across countryside to spend H-O-U-R-S at cricket matches and standing on rugby touchlines freezing on Sunday mornings, when I could have been in bed with a good book; picking their nursery, primary and junior schools with care and agonising over their senior school education, I was never going to stop being interested in a choice of university. The other part wants to add, I didn’t go to all my daughter’s options, I divvied up the duties with other parents. We lift shared or loaded the car with five other girls and another mum so we had company while the teens did their own thing. My husband has done the same with his children (we have six between us) as they’ve made the transition from schoolchild to semi-supporting student.

Which brings me to another aspect about the apparent interference of parents in children’s lives. When my great-uncle was 17 he was running messages for the Secret Army, when my parents were 17 they were both in the RAF. At 17 and in sixth form I could drive my parents’ cars (insurance and petrol were cheap back then) and by the time I was 19 I had my own car (paid for out of my savings). At 23 I had my own flat, and a mortgage, which I paid alone, on a junior reporter’s salary. I’d been to college (on a full grant, so I was debt-free) and if I had to live on Coco-Pops for a few days at the end of the month to get me to the next payday it was worth it for the independence.

If, as a society, we have infantalised our offspring and made them more and more dependent on us for financial support, for living allowances, for uni fees and for help on to the housing ladder, if we’ve priced them off the roads, if we’ve cut down on the number of vacancies available because we’re working longer and expecting more and we’ve F-ed up the economy, isn’t it a bit rich to turn round and complain they’re not independent or not self-reliant enough and that we as parents interfere and take too close an interest in their job searches?

I love that my own children are making lives of their own, that T works and studies (he’s embarked on an OU course) and that F is doing well in her second year of med school, that my stepson’s only phone calls home are to ask his designer dad for advice about a design project difficulty (surprise – Dad knows what he’s talking about!) and if as a consequence I don’t see them above once a term between holidays that’s the price I feel I have to pay for their confidence. I’m too lazy to have been a Tiger Mum and my children too secure to have allowed me to be, but I will confess to being a lioness mother – fiercely protective when needed, ready to fight to the death on their behalf, but happy to let them roam the plains if they want to.

My colleague and boss, Chris P, is a careers expert of many years’ standing. He has heard complaints from graduate recruiters that they’re being telephoned by parents seeking more detailed information about the rejection of their offspring and he offers a tip to the parents about how that makes their (adult) child look. Well here’s a retort to recruiters – if you’ve rejected someone and given them no feedback you have no right to an opinion on their parents and frankly, their parents, if they’re ringing you on their offspring’s behalf, don’t care what you think of their interference, anyway. The interview candidates might be in bits about their perceived failure, but parents’ only concern is that their offspring, having been rejected, gain something from the experience and make a better fist of an interview or assessment centre next time around. Only that way can they take a step further along the road to real independence and their parents can let them go with a sigh of relief.

And as for helicopter parents – successful child-rearing isn’t about propellers and creating a down-draught, it’s about giving your child wings and watching them fly – however risky that looks from your lofty – or lowly – level.

You can read Chris’s blog here and learn more about the company we work for, which is dedicated to finding graduates good jobs.

*With apologies to Philip Larkin

In praise of the annual round robin family newsletter

It may be unfashionable to say so, but I like round robin Christmas letters. Not that I write one, you understand, but I do so love to receive them.

Lynne Truss’s six-part radio sketch, aired on Radio 4 in the run-up to the festive season, was a poke at proud parents who write gazettes detailing every last cough of their offspring’s year. She suggested replies ranging from the ironic sneer to the openly deranged communiqué to counter their authors’ enthusiasm and discourage unwanted repeat missives next year.

I’d feel cheated if I didn’t get half-a-dozen or so such letters before Christmas Day.

If you move house several times following a career you make new circles of friends around the country, or even the world, but that doesn’t mean the old friends should be forgotten. There are too few hours in the day, days in the year, to see them all, so an annual round-up of a year’s events helps me follow the friends I made at NCT classes; the friends I made when our children (now grown-up) went to nursery together whom I no longer see.

“We had tickets to Super Saturday – how lucky were we?”

I like to hear that Catherine has just been on tour with her University of Cambridge jazz group and Ashley is riding for Paul Schockemöhle. That Matt and Helen (an old schoolfriend) have bought a tandem and are cycling the 38 miles return into central London on a regular basis. I want to know that the family I once lift-shared the school run with, who have had a bumpy year, are getting over cancer (her) and a period of redundancy (him). There’s the odd boast, it’s true “We had tickets to Super Saturday – how lucky were we?” – but I don’t feel put out or envious, any more than I need to retaliate by penning a barbed reply.

Some friends are so aware that the round robin is now frowned upon that they open their letter with an apology and an invitation to let them know if it’s too boring and I wish to ‘opt out’ of future years’ missives.

I don’t. Facebook isn’t the same, Twitter can only reveal so much in Tweet and the telephone is too limiting. Send me a printed out (or even e-mailed) annual update and make me smile. Who knows, I might even compose one myself next year.

You can listen to Lynne Truss’s radio programmes here.

The Story Museum in Oxford takes on a new lease of life.

ImageLast week I took my un-literary medic daughter and her friend for a tour of the Story Museum in Oxford. We arrived in true la-la fashion – in the maze of Oxford I couldn’t actually remember where Pembroke Street was, though I knew what it looked like – and after admiring the doorbells (see above), the work of resident artist Ted Dewan, we entered the magic kingdom of fiction, make-believe and all things creative.

It’s not that my daughter doesn’t read, she reads a lot, but her taste runs mostly to medical text books – she also has a medics’ anatomy colouring-in book, but that’s another story. She looks at me as if I’m a little odd when I rhapsodise about fiction. I suppose we need doctors as well as writers.

The Story Museum has found a home in Rochester House, supposedly built on the site of an inn frequented by Samuel Johnson when he was at Pembroke College (you can tell the stories here are going to run and run). It has served as Master’s lodgings and a Royal Mail, for which read GPO if you’re as old or older than I am, sorting office. Behind the main front door is another front door, with a sliding hatch and a circular counter, ideal for popping a head out of, if anyone felt so inclined. Everything about the house is “Just right” as Golidlocks might have said. There are stairs winding endlessly up to proper untouched writers’ garrets in the top of the house, creaky floorboards, wacky blackboards and odd signs on doors – which writer in residence Michael Rosen is keen to keep.

“Only dragons are allowed to smoke in the courtyard” proclaims one notice as we step into the world beyond the main Victorian building to a series of 1930s warehouse-like offices and rooms which flank all sides. One can feel (if one’s not a medic) oneself being pulled into the world of make-believe as posters and card-board cut-outs from the city’s last Alice Day stare out of windows.

“Who or what made the huge holes in the walls?” I ask Cath Nightingale, the museum’s press officer, imagining giant masonry-eating rodents still living in the corridors and roof spaces. The answer is much less poetic. Before taking on the lease, the Story Museum had to be sure the building wasn’t about to fall down and it’s structural engineers’ tests of the steel within the walls that have rendered the plaster and brickwork somewhat patchy here and there.

A very generous anonymous donor put up the £2.5 million necessary to buy a 130-year lease from Merton College and suddenly, along with a vast quantity of pigeon guano, a set of keys that would have impressed a Victorian chatelaine was handed over. Other effects have been found in the building and put to good use by avid collector, inventor and artist Ted Dewan, who has set up a workshop full of the kind of things you’d forgotten existed.

A programme of clean-ups and running repairs has been started to restore the buildings to some kind of new life after the years of neglect and decay. Some parts remain appropriately spooky, others, cosy, warm and inviting. Some have an airy spaciousness, others have a dark intimacy. The Bodleian Library’s presses have found a home here, and print workshops are already being run on site. The Creation Theatre is using the space for rehearsals, prior to its next season.

With little twists of creativity and running commentaries from visiting writers present at every turn, the building is not only a receptacle of fiction but a giver of stories and ideas to its visitors. If it inspires a new generation of authors to rival Philip Pullman, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll the money spent on the building will be an investment. If it offers children a run of imagination and riot of fancy in a world populated by exams, hoops to jump through and prescribed teaching, who cares whether they go on to be writers or doctors? As long as they let their parents accompany them, everyone will gain.

The Story Museum is scheduled to open fully in 2014. You can find more about it and the building programme here http://www.storymuseum.org.uk/the-story-museum/aboutus/ourbuilding/Rochester-House

The Mummies Return

Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up the existing galleries, ousted the shop from the former Ruskin Gallery, repositioned cabinets (rather counter-inuitively) into the walls – and gives visitors more floor space and circulation room, making the whole welcoming and airy and – as architect Rick Mather puts it – an exhibition without dead ends.

As someone who visits the Ashmolean regularly I confess, I used to skip past these galleries and so had no idea they were home to the Shrine of Taharqa – the only pharaonic building in Britain. A gift to the University of Oxford from the rulers of Sudan as thanks for the work done preserving the country’s decaying sites and treasures, it arrived in 1936 like something from an Indiana Jones film, in 150 packing cases. Since it had to be assembled on metres-deep foundations it couldn’t be moved during the renovations and the exhibition is centred around it. But I’d never noticed this sandstone edifice before. Stripping black paint off glass bricks in the vaulted ceiling above it has allowed what looks like natural daylight to flood through to highlight its shape and throw its carvings into relief. In fact, it’s a trick of the eye – fluorescent lights have been installed over the glass because the courtyard beyond will be the subject of revamp Phase Three.

Shrine (detail) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Patrick Berning of Rick Mather Architects explained that choosing the lighting had been another key element of ensuring the galleries evoke the exhibits’ homelands in the Nile Valley – bathed in sunlight and dappled by moonlight.

Coffin lid of Djeddjehutyiuefankh ‘Jed’ © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Think Ancient Egypt and you can’t help but think mummies – and, possibly dry, dusty sarcophagi with ghoulish contents. I used to be scared by the exposed mummy in my home city’s museum at Norwich Castle and I was unimpressed as a small child when my school entered the Ancient Egypt frenzy and friends queued around the British Museum to see the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition (though I’ve never forgotten how to spell the name).
These are things that become etched into the memory, but as the Ashmolean’s Assistant Keeper Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Liam McNamara, emphasises with schoolboy-like zeal, far from being obsessed with death the ancient Egyptians wanted to celebrate life and much of what is on show does just that. Liam has the kind of earnest enthusiasm for his subject that causes journalists to throng around him as he explains each display case’s contents and he’s touchingly concerned that another of the key exhibits, the mummy of ‘Jed’ has been found to be missing his heart – vital for weighing in the balance on reckoning day.

Bringing these mummies back into the museum’s centre and treating them with the reverence they would have been afforded at death has been a labour of love by the museum’s world-renowned conservators. Using innovative and inventive methods, they have prepared both the familiar pieces and some that have never before been seen by the public. New cases featuring micro-climates within allow coffins, portraits and artefacts to be displayed in fascinating detail, while modern scans have helped unravel the stories of the people beneath the wraps.

Life After Death gallery © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

Head of Conservation Mark Norman – who still can’t believe he and his staff were granted such a wonderful space to work in – the top-floor overlooking-the-city state-of-the-art north-facing studios housed in the newly built part of the Ashmolean – later explains the museum’s policy of respect and honour for any human remains in its possession. Taking us on a tour of those conservation studios (an oasis of calm now all the exhibits are back in position) he considers that the museum would never put an exposed body – for example a crouched burial – on show – and would be highly sensitive even to acquiring such a item for the museum’s collection.

The new galleries are an opportunity to exhibit world-renowned artefacts in a world-class place – but what’s on show still represents only 4 per cent of what the Ashmolean has, although Mark Norman is at pains to explain that much of what is behind the scenes would only be of interest to scholars and experts – shards and fragments – a bead, a tile, a shred of fabric, for example. Nevertheless, it’s such vast reserves that make the Ashmolean’s collections of early Egyptian material one of the most significant in the world outside Cairo.

That said, the museum as a whole is now Britain’s most visited outside London and Dr Brown (speaking candidly at lunch) said that if you think education should be free – and he does – ensuring that entry remains free is paramount to encouraging people’s knowledge. Wooed from the National Gallery, where he was Chief Curator, he is backed by a team of like-minded experts and visionaries – people like Project Director Henry Kim and Keeper of Antiquities Dr Susan Walker. Dr Brown thinks big and thinks the museum and the University, of which it is part, were lucky that the remodelling process started when financial confidence was high and funds could be secured. The current economic gloom may account for museum’s ongoing appeal – somewhere to visit on a wet Saturday rather than a trawl around the shops, perhaps.

Dr Brown always liked the way people popped into the National between train journeys or to see one or two things on their way to somewhere else and that’s something he’s been successful in translating into the cosmopolitan, but small, city of Oxford.

The Ashmolean’s newest galleries won’t appeal to everyone – there will always be naysayers who will dislike the smart-phone-like information guides and headsets and will gripe about the price of a coffee in the basement café (the top-floor dining room is invariably packed at lunchtime, so clearly no-one minds the prices there). But as my son – then aged 12 – remarked when the Ashmolean re-opened in 2009, entry is free and they do have to make their money somewhere. The profit from these ventures last year was £3 million and a large amount of that was creamed off and put back into running the museum, Dr Brown revealed while eating a sandwich. You can always take your own sarnies with you and sit on a bench somewhere quiet to save cash. Visiting the Ashmolean needn’t cost more than the price of a bus ticket – and that can’t be bad in these times of austerity.

Favourite things:

Min statue (3300BC)
Carved silkstone figure 3600-3500BC
Clay lion (2686-2175BC)
Protective amulets (on loan from Queen’s College)
Painted wood portraits
Artist Angela Palmer’s re-creation of a young child on 111 glass slides

Ashmolean Mummy Boy by Angela Palmer © Richard Holttum

Don’t miss

The Master Drawings exhibition 25th May-18th August 2013

For more information about the Ashmolean Museum and all its exhibits visit www.ashmolean.org or tel: 01865 278000.
Admission is free, donations are welcome.

*Please note images here have been used with the permission of The Ashmolean Museum Press Office & The University of Oxford.

Who or what is stopping you from writing?

It’s been a long January and now we’re well into February, with bees clearing out winter nests and snowdrops and miniature irises appearing under the trees, everything feels more spring-like. Post-Christmas finances, the grim weather and a lack of daylight all conspired to make staying at home in front of a fire seem a good thing. It’s not only nature that is stirring into new life now. In the last two weeks several unsought commissions have been dropping into my in-box. It’s encouraging to get paid for something you like doing, something you spent three years training to do, and it’s an ego boost if an editor seeks you out to do it and puts money into your bank account as a result. Even after 25 years earning a living from writing I never cease to be surprised that people read, and appear to like, what I produce. Shutting oneself away behind a laptop screen doesn’t feed one’s soul, however. I live in a lovely place – it’s quiet, a rural idyll that’s not too far-flung, where few disturb my thoughts. My very artistic husband, occasionally, will ask if I’d like another coffee or remind me we’ve not stopped for lunch. It ought to be a writer’s heaven – indeed, it would be the ideal location for a writer’s retreat and it’s very useful for my day job – but is it inspiring imaginative fiction and does it make me think about who I’m writing for?

It’s not a thought that’s new to me, but perhaps I’ve not really acknowledged the nagging feeling at the back of my brain. In order to spark plots and provoke daydreams I need a chance to observe (slyly) the goings-on of unknown passers-by and a reminder that there are people out there who read. Essentially nosy, I like to snatch snippets from the everyday lives of urban folk. My creative cogs start turning as I stand on a station platform, or wait at a pelican crossing. Here are characters to write about – here’s an audience to write for. So yesterday, as I drove up St Giles in Oxford, past The Eagle and Child – literary second home to the Inklings, whose number included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, I was already feeling the clank of creaking thought on rusty imagination. Once I’d parked and started walking along the street, I ear-wigged other people’s conversations (what a wonderful invention the mobile phone is – half an exchange of dialogue delivered in a public space – leaving the other half to be imagined). The population of Oxford is a quirky mix of foreign visitor, eccentric don, too-young student, elderly blue-stocking, yummy cycling mummy, serious scholar, earnest curator, muscular sportsman and terribly thin artist. The clothing that they wear, or affect to wear, includes silk scarf wrapped around canvas bag, brown boot, tan brogue, crepe de chine skirt, Converse trainer, tweed suit, red hat and black gown.

Of course, it would jolt anyone back into a creative phase if the person they were meeting for a mid-week lunch happened to be artist and novelist Roma Tearne – a one-woman walking wake-up call, whose output includes books, videos, paintings and lectures on the literary circuit. While we’re sharing a platter in the roof-top restaurant at The Ashmolean exchanging gossip, catching-up on several months’ news and speculating on who is doing what with whom and why they’re meeting, the grey skies are forgotten, the rain is elevated to a water feature on the outdoor terrace as it imparts a sheen on the sodden tables and chairs and gushes through gargoyles’ mouths. Apart from a trip to sunnier climes, is there any better way to shake off the winter blues? A descent through the atrium stairwell into the new galleries, glancing at the beckoning treasures of the world brings stories to mind. Who could fail to be inspired?

Afterwards, I drove home to the humdrum, past the girls from St Edward’s School in their unfashionably long skirts, overtaking a Tesco lorry and postal van to dutifully perform the school pick-up before the routine of supper, homework, music practice, bed. Cyril Connolly’s “pram in the hall” is often cited as an excuse for a lack of creativity. His quotable quotes survive him, however, and in common with many male writers, he had wives who got on with the child-rearing and housekeeping, leaving him free to earn a living in whatever way he chose, or was able, to. I don’t believe the pram is the only barrier to getting out of the door, or that children are the thieves of time; what really stifles, constrains and contracts our thoughts is the lack of opportunity to connect with the outside world. The rushed journey into the office (or the dash downstairs to the desk), the need to earn a living, the whizz around the supermarket, each push wordplay – or in my husband’s case, painting – towards the bottom of the priority pile. If wordplay and painting were always at the top, the children would go unfed, the house would be filthy, there would be nothing in the bank account (ever) and I’d probably sink into a routine of writing in an exercise book with a pencil (there being no money to pay for electricity to charge my MacBook), while my husband would be re-using old canvasses to get his creative fix. But there’s a balance to be struck. Would I write if I didn’t think I had an audience? Probably. Would I get satisfaction from it? Possibly not. Do I need to earn a living? Yes. Is writing how I’ve done it for 25 years? Yes. Am I lucky that my day job dovetails nicely with my aspirations? Um – yes.

Yesterday’s trip to Oxford was a wake-up call. I need to unplug my i-Pod, open my eyes and dust off my notebook. Switch off the internet, drink my latte and get creative. The only person stopping me writing fiction is myself.

Welcome

Sandra Kessell ©Paul Wilkinson Photography LtdWelcome to my blog. It’s an informal collection of thoughts, visits, experiences and features. Sometimes I will include a review of a place or event I’ve been invited to preview, but most of what is here has been published in magazines and books.

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