Monday, January 27, 2014


When last at the V&A in London we were disappointed to discover that the whole textile section had been closed down, along with other familiar areas of this marvellous museum. The story was that the museum was moving the textile section into a new building and was refurbishing other parts of the complex. Sadly we missed out yet again on seeing the quilting wonders that are held in this legendary place. It seemed that it was not a matter of any shortage of space. What was happening? Indeed, as we moved through the spectacular brick and stone building that had been funded by the great exhibition of 1851, we became aware of many changes. There seemed to be large areas that had been closed to the public. Several spaces appeared to have been put aside for private functions: NO PUBLIC ACCESS BEYOND THIS POINT. Were budgets being threatened? Was this hiring out of spaces just another way to raise money?

In Britain, museum entrance is now free. It was a strategy legislated by the government. The idea was to promote tourism. Perhaps other ploys have had to be invented to collect cash? Museums are not cheap to run. Is this why areas were being closed down? We could no longer see even the Frank Lloyd Wright Kauffmann office that had, somewhat surprisingly but pleasingly for our convenience, been relocated here. Regretfully, the museum seemed to have less on display than it had exhibited on our previous visits. Had staff numbers been cut? And there were more special themed displays than before when the exuberance of the collection spread as though it were in a maze – as if it were an Aladdin’s cave - for all to discover. It truly did amaze. The new organisation and  categorisation by topic and concept was a real disappointment. The V&A’s reputation was better than this, grander and more openly inclusive: classically eclectic and committed to this cheeky openness.

Sadly it was slowly becoming more like any other museum. The audacious Ming vase that once stood intrepidly for all to touch had gone in this restructuring. The most obvious change was the relocation of the V&A shop. It had now been given pride of place in the grand central concourse, directly on the path of everyone who approached from the main entry on Cromwell Road. There was no way to avoid it. This was once a majestic, stone-clad foyer dominated by the frenzied Chihuly glass chandelier. Now it was a crowded market place selling expensive souvenirs and nic nacs. It looked as though finances were driving all of the changes here. The opportunity for impulse buying seemed to offer a chance to boost income that was too good to ignore, just as the need for sustenance has been likewise accommodated with numerous cafes and eating-places filling spaces that were previously exhibition areas. It all looked like a good money-spinner with the displays organised for easy consumption too. The rules were that entry into any ‘blockbuster’ or special exhibition could be charged for. The museum seemed to be as cunning and brutal as any government when it comes to developing concepts for raising money, and for saving it too.

Perhaps the circumstance with the disappearing textiles has had a good outcome: the published brochure announced that a selection of V&A quilts was to be put on display in the Queensland Art Gallery. Maybe the V&A was happy to have these items move around while the new building was being prepared for the permanent display? It appeared that this travelling exhibition might solve two problems: it would create an income for the V&A while removing all the problems and costs associated with temporary relocation and storage. It looked like a shrewd move. We went to see the quilts in Brisbane, again leaving this until the last week; but we did get there. At least we would see something of this amazing V&A collection, but there would be no ancient fabrics to discover in old drawers; no smell of the antique; no ‘lost’ items to surprise; and no pieces of original William Morris textiles to marvel at. It would be just quilts - ‘1700 – 1945’ as the marketing defined the scope in time - and untouchable. There is always something unfriendly about the policing of exhibits where one is constantly watched; when even the slightest gesture that might suggest an intent to touch is monitored and reprimanded, leaving one feel like a naughty school child.

The arrangement was that we would meet friends just before opening time. We drove into the underground car park that boasted a $15.00 all day charge in bright neon. “We are going to the gallery for a couple of hours. How much will that be?” “$15.00” was the bland and unmoved response. We had experienced this inconvenience before, see , so one just kept quiet, paid and drove in. It was obviously going to be useless to complain or to highlight the issue here when all that the gatekeeper was interested in was to collect the full payment and let you in, leaving one to get out without his supervision. The gallery seemed keen to make money from office workers at the inconvenience of gallery visitors rather than provide a flexible service for its patrons. It all seemed to be just too much trouble to worry about this inconvenience and expense. Are all museums and art galleries becoming money traps? Gosh, one pays enough to get into these exhibitions in Queensland without having the added impertinence of the exorbitant cost of parking. At least entry into the V&A was free and London public transport makes private transport unnecessary, as much as the London levy makes it undesirable.

Here in Brisbane it all seemed to be a moneymaking enterprise at every turn, like an airport where necessity creates and accommodates the urge to strip dollars off patrons without apology or care, much to the glee of the monopoly enterprises that milk every possible opportunity: gouging. Even cabs leaving the local airport are hit with a levy. The street parking at this time of the day was already congested. There really was no choice. We drove in over the squealing painted floor to a vacant parking area and walked to the gallery. This was no straightforward path. It was a matter of dodging vehicles in this lower level, both parked and moving; getting to the vehicular entry of the car park; crossing the underground road; following one’s nose until there seemed to be the likelihood of an exit stair or lift ahead; discovering the lift; guessing the level; and arriving at the gallery entrance zone. Why do potentially simple paths become quixotic detours? Does anyone care? Does anyone think? There is a clear lack of empathy in design today that seems to concentrate only on style and personal preferences.

We were early. We waited for our friends in the cool of the café shade. The day was already hot. They arrived just as the doors opened. Folk were already gathering for this exhibition, such was its popularity. We paid and entered into a large, high brightly painted yellow space - van Gogh? The quilts were hung on the walls; smaller items were arrayed in glass showcases. The crowds gathered around the texts that sought to explain things. One description per item caused strife when two might have been useful. Why are easy solutions neglected? Why are folk encouraged to stop directly at the entrance to read introductory words on a wall exactly where people movements were most intense? Are museums so blind to the necessity of displays and their demands?

The colours of the display areas varied. Only one space was sunny yellow. The other memorable colour was, sadly, black. The second space had a central black structure that seemed to have patterns in its openings that were being reused from a Chinese exhibition. The configurations of the perforations were not those of quilting. Black is an awkward colour to use in a display area, especially as a centrepiece. It deadens hues with its bland depressing mass. Dark blue has more life and depth. It is rich, mysteriously vibrant like a night sky. The yellow dominated its space, but surprisingly the quilts were of such authority that they survived this challenge. Why yellow? Did the designers really know that old interiors did in fact once have bright walls, or was it a ‘design’ colour - to be different? Bright yellow, pink and sky blue have all been discovered in the paint scrapings taken from the interiors of the grand old homes of the 1700’s in the Shetland Islands.

As one ambled deeper into the exhibition, it didn’t take long for the same old problems to arise yet again. All the lighting was physically high-level, the norm in this flexible ‘special exhibits’ space, but it provided only a low level, non-specific illuminance. The space seemed to be in an unnecessary haze of height and depth, experienced as the frustration of poor quality of illumination when one attempted to study an item in detail. Looking became a real task. The stitches were tiny and numerous. It seemed to be a careless height for light that appeared to be there just because it was. This elevation added naught to the display. There had been nothing done to either use it in any way or to adapt this massive void to establish a sensible scale and place for the cosy quilts that occupied only the lower one third of the walls at best. It looked like the classic cliché “She’ll be right” attitude had been given to this display: “We’ll just have to make do with what we have.”

Light had to traverse this void to achieve its outcome. When one leaned over to read a text, one discovered one was staring at an array of overlapping shadows of one’s own head, some five of six of them overlayed in parts to create their own multiple fragmented shades of nuisance patterning. Moving aside to avoid this irritant only revealed another problem - the full glare of the light above blinding the eyes as a reflection. Why oh why does this occur? It seemed that the display had been the cheapest possible arrangement so as to maximise profit - like the car parking arrangements. There had been little effort made to adapt the spaces for the benefit of the quilts or the visitors. One knows how fabrics, especially old fabrics, are sensitive to light, but why not spend money and install quality low-level lighting that can be at the appropriate location and angle to highlight the other much mentioned matter: the quilting itself, the texturing of the whole assembly with patterned stitches that hold the layers together. Why oh why is this core item ignored too? This detail was flattened by the direct blaze of high light that failed to highlight the contours, making them invisible. Only occasionally was the quilting accentuated, as if by happenstance.

When one could finally read the texts after appropriate physical adjustments, it was frequently noted that the information was simply descriptive, e.g., that the item was made of such and such materials, and was of such and such a size. Sometimes there was a story to identify possible provenance. Often the backing was referred to with an equally detailed description; but these reverse sides were never ever seen. Why oh why? Anyone who knows anything about quilts knows how important the back of the quilt is as well as the front. It helps determine the rigour of the intent, to confirm the commitment to the main design and its making. Alas, there were no backs to be seen, even though they were a talking point in the texts. Why are museums so deaf to the cry for ordinary informative, creative presentations? Is just ‘cheap and easy’ enough? I recalled our last visit - Matisse at GOMA - that looked as though it had used an anonymous space with leftover elements of another display: see -  Surely this has not happened again? Frustratingly there was one text in a corner that one could never get to read. It suffered from the corner syndrome that those designing displays never seem to understand. Why oh why? Wouldn’t you think . . . ? – see: Is it so difficult to display both sides of a quilt, just too difficult to think about the ordinary functioning of information and display - of how people need to see things nonchalantly, without performing or parading to suit the style of the display, or to be seen as ‘arty’ or ‘artful.’?

QR Codes were used in various locations. These interesting diagrams are useful but they never seem to be published to allow one to read and see more at home, in one’s own space and time. Why make people stare at their mobiles in public? Isn’t there enough of this now? A visit to the gallery should be a social event, not an event for the perpetuation of personal indulgences. Why not encourage engagement otherwise when there might be an opportunity to achieve this involvement? There is enough introspection as it is in just about every other place already. Watching folk in the café prior to the gallery opening showed an assortment of individuals singularly engrossed with their small screens, sitting alone, silently, unsocially. Unbelievably, one couple were sitting side by side, each with eyes only for their own little instrument. The world is becoming overly self-interested in things other than the present, let alone what tradition sees as the ‘eternal present.’ One always hears in exhibitions: “I like this; I don’t like that; I would have . . ; it seems . . to me.” Why is it always about ‘me’? QR Codes only encourage this ‘look at me’ indulgence. How can these folk ever learn anything when the exercise seems to be one of personal assessment - how I feel and think? Then I suppose, one is lucky that these folk are even talking about the display. Many gabble on about everything else with conversations that would be better carried out in the café outside. “Did you hear about . . .?” Of course, the fashion for electronic information plug-ins that can be rented to patrons only further encourages this stance, and orchestrates how one has to see the display.

The other distraction in these exhibitions is the tour guides. They always speak loudly, irrespective of anyone else, and have the skill to convert things of beauty into an endless string of domineering facts with just too much certainty, a little like the head phones do in other circumstances. One must move on quickly to avoid not only the noise, but also the ever escalating, self-centred bustle: the avalanche of the group that has its own rude necessities and priorities.

The quilts were stunning. Tiny stitches holding thousands of pieces together to create large decorative surfaces of fabric, while others are wonderfully shaped to create an image or delineate its finer characteristics. The work had an enigmatic quality. Things naïve and crude up very close became subtle and distinctively grand from a distance that was surprisingly small. The display of time and patience, skill and craft was simply mesmerising. Do we live with just too much haste today? The exhibition did allow folk to pause. Various bentwood chairs had been artfully placed for folk to sit; but it looked as though more thought had been given to appearance than to personal place, space and comfort. This apparent self-conscious neglect of matters of feeling and function seemed to be a common fault here at the Queensland Art Gallery. Is this the fate of all art today?

Why were the techniques not made explicit? Why were quilters not working there? Why were the displays so poor? Why display quilts on fake bed masses stuck into blind corners such that they can only be seen in part at the overhanging edge and otherwise flattened obliquely? The comment made seemed true: “This show has been designed by someone who knows nothing about quilts and quilting.” One could add: and very little about the design of displays too. Now I have to admit to being wrong about the lack of exposure of the rear of any quilt. There was one display that showed the unfinished back of a quilt through holes in the wall it was mounted on, but this was useful only to those who could understand the technique involved. Many stood gawking at things they could not comprehend. “Why did they leave the stitches there?” was one question that was overheard. Surely it is the task of the display to explain this before it is asked?

Museums and art galleries must be better than this. They never fail to understand how to make money. Why do they not care about displays? Gosh, do they really care for anything but profit? The catalogue for the show that was titled Quilts 1700 – 1945 had sold out in this last week. No, they were not going to reprint it. The art gallery did offer to take an order for the V&A publication that had been used in part for the catalogue – V&A Quilts 1700 – 2010 Hidden histories; untold stories - cost $55.00! We checked the Book Depository: cost delivered to your door - $38.00. Then we perused other items in the shop: a small Indian cotton bag - $32.00. “We made ninety of these for charity yesterday,” the stunned voice said. The small ring made from plasticine and tape - $30.00; the tiny tape folded into a flower-shaped broach with a central button - $45.00. Astonishing! Should it not be $4.50? Why does art always seem to overvalue itself, its significance and its importance? Does it think that it will be devalued as ‘art’ if it is cheaper? It was all very alarming and reminded us of our parking costs. Oh, time had passed. We had to leave, to go to our ‘all day’ parking location that we had occupied for less than three hours. Now, there’s a good profit for you. Gallery success! It could collect at least $45.00 for this space in one day at this rate.

So, in summary: amazing quilts in a shockingly cheap, careless display, a mere shadow of what it might have been. After many critiques of displays in art galleries, see  and  and , it seems that no one cares. Sadly the art is just the medium for profit. There is no understanding of the biblical text: “For what should it profit a man ..”  Soul is what is being ignored here. Such values are not easily converted into cash.

The exit from the art gallery gave one time to recall that from the V&A. We moved out to the side street into the London traffic and strolled down to the main entrance on Cromwell Road where we had arranged to meet friends who had visited the Natural History Museum opposite. On the large stones at the base of the V&A building one could see the impacts of WW2 bombing of London, the scars of other times. History was there in the fabric itself. In Brisbane, history had been obliterated when this new gallery was built some years ago. There were no markings here to remind anyone of anything but the squealing wheels on the painted floor. Such is this colony that carries its convict history in its genes  see -

The grand quilt sewn by the convict women for the ‘ladies’ was placed at the end of the display, almost as an aside. It was locked up in its own shop window - the only large quilt to be so displayed, spread out at an angle. Was this meaningful? One supposes that it had to take its correct place amongst the quilts from the old country, now venerated as V&A exhibits. The cringe is alive and well! The colony knows how it must act when the British are nearby. Why was this convict quilt not the centrepiece of this exhibition? It did not even fit into the chronology of the arrangement of the V&A items. It was a mere aside, a quaint local touch: a poor apology to the ‘home country.’

Are we still trying to prove ourselves like the female convicts who recorded in sad threads the hope that their enterprise might show that they had taken the advice of the ‘ladies’ not to waste their time on the voyage out to Australia? When will we ever learn? It seems we will not.

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