Art for art’s sake: musings on the museum and art gallery

11th July 2017


Musings on the proposed museum and art gallery: or rather the stuff in it and attitudes towards that

swindon museum and art gallery

A couple of years ago I wrote a post called ‘The Purpose of Art’.  The point of that post was to highlight the rich diversity of artists we have in our town. From the ‘names’ big and small, the quantity and quality of art being produced in this town is astonishing.  A couple of things happened recently that made me think of that post again – and, by extension, the proposed new museum and art gallery.

But first, let me make clear:

I’m not going to try and ‘persuade’ you of the merits – or otherwise – of this project. There are people out there far better qualified to answer your questions on that. Rod Hebden the trust director for one. Besides which, those waters are a nasty, churning, shark-infested maelstrom and I’m not a strong enough swimmer!

I will say this though: no-one involved in Swindon’s heritage, and especially NOT the Mechanics’ Institute Trust, thinks that the Mechanics’ Institute would make a good museum. So please, stop it with the regurgitating the ‘museum could go in the Mechanic’s suff’. No. It couldn’t. 

So what’s got me thinking?

  1. A talk I attended up at the museum called ‘Order out of Chaos’. This was a super talk. It was interesting. It was accessible. And, appropriately for this post, it was enlightening and it made me think. I’ll say more about this further on. In the meantime here’s a link to a blog about it.
  2. I had the opportunity to meet, briefly, some of the trustees of this project including Robert Hiscox.  I’ll deal with this point first and as briefly as I can:

Up until now most of the information I’d had about Mr Hiscox had come via social media. And that’s never the best way. All of it was second-hand. Now, having met him briefly and a tad contrary to my expectations, I rather warmed to him.

I totally get why he’s rubbed people up the wrong way. I think his choice of words has perhaps been unfortunate: using terms like ‘giving Swindon a heart’ is not arguably not ideal. Though I can see what he’s getting at I think.

It’s not unsurprising though that Swindon is not overly impressed by such words. People believe, rightly, that it’s got a heart. Or at least it could and should have.

That aside – I believe his intent with this project is a whole bunch more positive than he’s given credit for. And I don’t think this is a ‘vanity project’. Why do I think that? Because if a vanity project was what he were about he could find easier places than Swindon* to do it in  that’s for flipping sure!

That’s all I’m saying about Mr Hiscox. Because the thing that struck me most was the aforementioned talk.

Order out of Chaos 

We all know that Swindon owns this rather special collection of 20th century art. Yeah? Got that. But what came across to me at this talk, that I hadn’t fully appreciated before, was how much other stuff there is in Swindon’s collection that deserves a better home. For instance – its archeological artefacts. A lot of them and ever growing:

‘Stef said that there’s always a question about how many objects there are in the 5 large storerooms, the answer is there are probably 100,000, and this number will double in the next 5-7 years as archaeological finds are made when the eastern villages are built.’

Then there’s the 38 wall paintings from Burderop House. I had no idea about those either.

Then there’s conservation and storage. On the subject of the former here’s a YouTube clip showing conservation work being carried out on the bust of Alfred Williams – famously known as The Hammerman poet. 

A duty of care

The other thing that struck me during this talk was the duty of care that our (and all museums) has. It may well have 50 pairs of Victorian knickers in its collection when really it only needs – say 6. But what a museum can’t do is simply dispose of stuff. If items have been donated and accepted (whenever that may have been) then they have to be catalogued, cared for and stored.  It’s not hard to see how all this activity needs something fit for purpose.

And out of all of that I had to think to myself: ‘how WONDERFUL this/something would be’. The knock-on effect would surely be immense and positive? And if it made possible the regeneration of the Railway Village conservation area what an amazing ‘thing’ that would be. And what a legacy for our children and our grandchildren.

The Purpose of Art

So now I come to this. Pablo Picasso said that the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. Now, I clearly didn’t know Picasso but I’m pretty sure that he meant ALL souls not just a ‘select’ few – and I use that word for a reason, which I’ll come to.

Access to art – in all its forms (music, dance, books – you name it) is access to education. It’s access to self-improvement. It’s access to general knowledge. Those men who founded the Mechanics’ Institute knew that.

There’s well-documented evidence out there that crime rates and ill-health (physical as well as mental health) are lowered/improved where there’s access to – let’s call it culture. It’s not for nothing that many prisoners break their cycle of criminality by learning to read. All of which makes the national policy of library closures deeply mystifying. But I digress.

And why wouldn’t we want that in Swindon? If not for ourselves then for future generations.


Attitude is all

I come from Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire – from the coalfields. A more working-class background you’d struggle to find. One thing I remember clearly was the inverted snobbery: ‘There’s nowt wrong with ‘aving milk bottle on ‘table’.  Well no, there isn’t. But there’s equally nothing wrong with putting it in a pretty jug and getting some nice china out when you have visitors. It’s all very well calling a spade a spade – but what if it happens to be shovel?!  It drove me mad then and it drives me mad now.

And I’ve come across this same attitude in Swindon. Not in everyone of course. But I have encountered it. I’ve heard people say things like (I paraphrase) ‘Oh it’s too much for Swindon’, ‘this is a working class town’. ‘

And today, on social media, apropos of this new art gallery: ‘ … here that only a “select” few want or will use…!!!’

Who are these ‘select’ few? I’ll use it – and I’m not ‘select’. I might like to think I am but that’s not the same thing at all! I’m working class at heart and I always be – no matter how many sun dried tomatoes and smashed avocados on toast I eat. But that doesn’t preclude me from having aspirations. And nor should Swindon preclude itself from having aspirations.  There’s no exclusion zone that I know of! Except self-imposed ones.

What makes me sad about that comment – and many others that I’ve seen – is the apparent underlying belief (in some people) that art is not for them. That art ( in all its forms) is not for the working classes.

So many people go on and on about restoring the Mechanics’ Institute. Quite right too. But why? Is it because it’s an important building? That’s a good reason. But for me, the importance of the Mechanic’s Institute doesn’t lie in the the fabric of the place. It lies in what it was used for.  And in nutshell that was self-improvement. Not playing darts and skitttles. Though they may have done that too – I’ve no idea. But the important thing is this:

 They clearly didn’t think that education and the arts was not for them. It’s arguable that taking such an attitude dishonours those men. They were fine working men who laid the foundations for Swindon to become the proud industrial town that it is. Without them there’d have been nothing. (Old Town take note! 😉  )  And they were men with a thirst for knowledge, a thirst for art forms – they were aspirational.

Indeed,  taken from the Mechanics’ Institute Trust website:

‘However, at the same time the popularity of the library saw an ever-increasing number of readers and books.

   Plans had been prepared in 1878 for a new theatre on the site of the market hall, but this project did not proceed, presumably due to the high cost involved. By the 1880’s the Institution was providing technical and artistic further education to some 500 students and was now literally “bursting at the seams”.”

For what it’s worth – my thoughts on art:

  • There’s a lot of pretentious twaddle talked about art. Almost as much as there is about coffee! I find it’s best ignored.
  • You don’t have to ‘understand’ art. There’s not always anything to understand IMHO. If you like a piece – if it appeals to you in some way then great. You might simply like the colours! That’s fine! If it doesn’t – that’s also great.
  • A degree in Fine Art is not required. In fact you don’t need an O’Level
  • Being happy in the middlebrow is also fine.  I’m middlebrow and proud: in books, films, music and my taste in art I like the middlebrow. And that’s also okay!

Being working class doesn’t bar you from enjoying ‘nice’ things. Whether it be clothes, food, music or whatever.  It’s quite possible to remember where you came from – indeed we should always remember where we came from – but that shouldn’t get in the way of appreciating the ‘finer’ things in life. With me, aside from middlebrow art, it’s Champagne. Bolly darling? Note though that I enjoy a good pint just as much.

Here endeth the lesson.

My own position?

I won’t lie. I can see the merits of this new build. I like the design.  I can see the point of the location. I think it could be a perfect nexus between Old Town on one side and the town centre and the Railway Village on the other. That said – I can equally see the merits of the argument for using the carriage works. And I truly don’t have strong feelings one way or the other.

 I just want SOMETHING to happen. And if it’s a choice between this project or nothing – then I’ll take this. 

I think it’s fair to say that mistakes were made with this museum project. I’m sure the trust would agree. Communications were not what they should have been. But oh boy are they working hard to rectify that now! So now, with the help of volunteers, the model of the proposed new museum is everywhere like a rash, and I see Rod Hebden on social media responding to queries, questions – and more. See bottom of this post. 🙁

So just a thought: even IF at heart you don’t agree with this project, can you not just give them some credit for the efforts they are now making? Can you not at least give them the benefit of the doubt and consider that maybe, just MAYBE those involved with this project truly believe in its potential for Swindon. #justsaying

An aside: – *easier places than Swindon? Today I had a coffee with someone involved in the town team project in Swindon. This project is working with the council, Forward Swindon and independent businesses to try and get some of the empty town centre units in use. It’s an uphill struggle but they’re trying. They’ve been successful in other towns. Towns with much less to offer than Swindon – not that I’m of the opinion that Swindon is this God-awful dump that so many people refer to. It’s far from it – but that’s another diatribe on its own!

Having seen some negative exchanges on social media I asked him had he encountered the same thing in other towns.  I’m saddened – though not ONE BIT surprised – to hear him say that yes, they have – but that it’s a whole new level of negativity and vitriol in Swindon. 

It makes ya think!

And THAT’S why I don’t think that Robert Hiscox isn’t engaged in a vanity project. I mean – why would you?!


Comments are closed.