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Samuel Pepys: Plague Fire and Revolution. Excellent objects, Excellent access, standard storyline.

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I hopped on the DLR to Greenwich last week to have a gander at the National Maritime Museum’s new temporary exhibition last week. The exhibition focuses on Stuart London, using Pepys’ diary as a lens to explore a turbulent century that saw civil war, the Plague and the Great Fire of London that devastated the city.

Pepys was a colourful character. He not only witnessed all these famous events but recorded them in detail in his famous diary. The exhibition boasts over 200 paintings and objects from museums, galleries and private collections across Britain and beyond.

 

I had high hopes. I’ve loved several shows at NMM before and the Astronomy Photographer of the Year at the Royal Observatory is one of my favourites. I also know that the Royal Museums Greenwich have some wonderful collections from that time period. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed. It was a very thorough and competent walkthrough of the time period, and the viewpoint of the diarist gave it a lovely personal touch.

Despite being mostly a traditional approach to an exhibition – a chronological timeline and design evoking the time period, there were a couple of lovely moments. A simple opening monologue, for instance, illustrated by a painting loaned in from the National Portrait Gallery, “The Execution of Charles I, unknown” set the scene in a dramatic and instantly enthralling way. As the narrator talked through the day of the execution, the relevant parts of the image lit up to show the crowds or the executioner or the King’s severed head. Definitely brought the events to life and served as an excellent introduction to the show and Pepys, who as a teenager stood in the crowd and watched the King’s head roll.

I was particularly impressed by the objects on display, and just how many of them were loaned in (dread to think of the paperwork). Highlights for me were King Charles’ blood on a scrap and portraits of the King’s mistresses – the accompanying text gave just the right insight and information to titillate and intrigue.

There were quite a few attempts to make the exhibition interactive. Touchscreens throughout displayed scans of relevant sections of Pepys’ diary. A touchscreen activated a modern day text of the page as you scrolled over it. This was a really lovely idea and a great way to get people to engage directly with Pepys’ words. Sadly, as is so often the case with digital interactives I really struggled to get it to work. Nice idea though. Also, several of the panels and caption already seemed to be wearing – I wonder if all the effort on loans meant costs were skimped on production? Those cursed museum budgets again!

I was also impressed by how much thought had gone in to making it accessible. All videos were accompanied by a sign-language display, there were large print guides and a lot of thought clearly went into font size and colour. This is a trend you can see more and more in Museums and it’s slowly becoming a part of normal practice, rather than an add-on if funds allow.

 

I really enjoyed the exhibition in all. Learned some interesting nuggets, got to see some fascinating objects and it really piqued my curiosity about Pepys.

Key Information

Location: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Date and time: 20 November 2015 to 28 March 2016, 10.00–17.00

Price: £12 adults | £6 children | £10 concessions | £31.50 family

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British Library: Are you a beat?

EXHIBIT: ON THE ROAD: JACK KEROUAC’S MANUSCRIPT AT THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Beatnik girl

Beatnik girl.     Image by Pepe Robles

OVERVIEW

This is a temporary exhibit (until 27th December 2012) of the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s famous “On the Road”. A 120 foot scroll of typing produced over 3 weeks in April 1951. The work is largely autobiographical and describes Kerouac’s road-trip adventures in the late 40’s with other beatniks, most notably Allen Ginsberg and William S Burrough who, along with Kerouac, are considered the founding fathers of the Beat Generation. The book was hailed as a seminal piece of work and is still considered the ultimate representation of the Beat movement. The scroll is on tour and leaving London shortly, find out where it’s going next here. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed so any illustrations in the following account are, sadly, not my own.

MY VISIT

I knew virtually nothing about Jack Kerouac before my visit. I have never read “On the Road” (although planning to now!) and only knew superficial details about the Beat movement of the 1940’s and 50’s. I stumbled across the exhibit when I went to the British Library to renew my membership. I was intrigued straight away so put off my registration and got to some exploring. Definitely the right decision!

The whole set up was very simple: all black and white colours, with some rudimentary wooden frames for the posters and introductory panel, no doubt echoing the yearning for a simpler lifestyle by Beat generation. The entrance, although simple, is very effective; the large blown up pictures of 1940s and 1950s America certainly caught my eye. As you go in further there is a brief overview of Jack Kerouac’s life, how the manuscript came to be, and short profiles of all those who inspired the various characters in “On the Road”. e.g.  Neal Cassady was the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty and Allen Ginsberg was Carlo Marx.

Kerouac and the Beat generation

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac was an American writer and poet born in Lowell Massachussets in 1922 to French-Canadian parents. He attended Columbia University where he met Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg and others with whom he pioneered the Beat Generation (first using the term in his book “On the Road”). The Beat Generation began as a literary movement which grew into a cultural phenomenon with avant-garde writers, poets, artists and film makers who all opposed the values of post-war America: commercialisation. They sought to create radical art and a new vision for America, with a deeper and more spiritual meaning to life. Inevitably, the media and commercialisation got their grips on the movement and it was stereotyped and represented in mass produced books and films.

The Beat Generation. Shown clockwise from left: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Lafcadio Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso in 1956.

The Beat Generation. Shown clockwise from left: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Lafcadio Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso in 1956.

The scroll

The main feature of the exhibit is of course the scroll which was again simply displayed in a long white case. There is no need for any ornamentation as the object is impressive in itself; an astounding length and in excellent condition. I’m sure any fans of the published book would find this a fascinating read; especially as the manuscript was heavily edited (characters’ names changed, profanities removed) before publication. The exhibition designers used the scroll as a grounding piece, drawing out snippets of information from the scroll, giving further insight into the text, such as the history behind the people who inspired the characters, or etymologies of words (see below).

Kerouac's scroll on exhibit in Lowell, Masachussetts, the author's birthplace,

Kerouac’s scroll on exhibit in Lowell, Massachusetts , the author’s birthplace. It is remarkable this was written in one 3 week burst of “inspiration and perspiration”.

Behind the scroll were large panels with more eye-catching images and quotes from the book, which give an insight into its message and values. One example which really caught me:

…but then they danced down the street like dingledodies and I shambled after as usual as I’ve been doing all my life after people that interest me, because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a common place thing…but burn burn burn like Roman candles across the night”.

There was little else to see – some great books from the time were on display to the side of the scroll, and of course the wonderful pictures. A short but sweet experience. Overall, the exhibit was very straightforward, easy to follow and managed to transfer a good amount of information, while still capturing a nostalgic essence for the beatnik movement. There were no interactive gimmicks or audio-visuals (unsurprising considering the location of the exhibit), and it catered to a slightly more academic or interested audience than one would normally expect in a public museum. I’m definitely planning to get a copy of the book, and possibly even see the upcoming Vigo Mortinsen film.  Can’t wait to see what the next temporary exhibit is!

FAVOURITE FACT LEARNED

One of the nuggets of information decorating the side of the scroll dealt with the etymology of the word “beat” as slang. It was introduced to Kerouac and his friends in the mid-1940s by Herbert Huncke (the basis for the character Elmer Hassel), a Times Square hustler, street philosopher and drug addict. Originally, its street usage meant “down and out” but, according to Ginsberg, it could also mean “wide open and receptive to vision”. Later Kerouac wrote that he had a “vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific”, thus emphasising the spiritual dimension, so important to the beat generation.

FAVOURITE OBJECT

A book from the alcove entitled “Beat, Beat Beat” by William F Brown, dated to 1959. Clearly part of the unfortunate but inevitable commercialisation of the movement, it is open on a page which reads:

Are you a Beatnik?

  • Do you like girls?
  • Do you cheer for the aspirin every times Bufferin reaches the Bloodstream?
  • Do friends say you’re subliminal behind your back?
  • Do you back Mort Sahl for President?

If you can read…If you answered “Yes” to every question –

Man, You’re Beat!

Now Stop trying to sneak away without paying the nice man thirty five cents like everybody else.

And don’t let him break away either.

GET WITH IT MAN

DIG DOWN…DEEP!”

Excellent advice!

CAFÉ: Yes – British Library café – Yum!  

GIFT SHOP: Yes – British Library Shop – great stuff in there but boy oh boy is it expensive!

ENTRY FEE: None!

LOCATION: British Library, Euston Rd London. Nearest Tube station: King’s Cross

WEBSITE: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/kerouac/

You can read more about the Beat generation here.