Thursday 25 August 2016

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, British Museum

The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus once lay at the mouth of the Nile. They were  submerged over a thousand years ago in a similar fashion to the fate that threatens Venice. The British Museum’s latest major exhibition showcases items excavated by Franck Goddio and team from the site of their resting place in the depths of the Mediterranean. The museum’s vast exhibition space has been decorated in turquoise and blue to emulate the water that many of the items emerged from, a constant soundtrack attempts to add to the atmosphere. Vast statues stand proudly dominating the space, a quite remarkable sight, especially considering how well preserved they are after centuries in their watery grave.

Large sculptures highlight each room but there are many smaller, more every day items, which they attempt to use to reveal more about the culture and interlinking of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian custom. Barely ten percent of the remains have been excavated and a tinier proportion still are on display. The exhibition is padded with items from the museum’s own collections as well as some from further afield, a water symbol on the labels clearly identifying those from the excavation site. They attempt to bring to life the bustling cities that they were in their prime; Thonis-Heracleion holding a position of importance in the commercial world, and Canopus more focused on the worship of Egyptian gods. It becomes clear that their positioning on the Nile afforded many opportunities, but also that they tried to emulate civilisations that had come before in order to add legitimacy to their own.

The exhibition is genuinely breathtaking in its earlier stages and an introductory video details the amazing discovery of the lost cities, heightening the curiosity. Short videos and photographs are dotted around the space showing objects in situ and in the process of being recovered, giving them context beyond the walls of the museum. Attempts have been made to make Sunken Cities family friendly with separate exhibition notes and activities. There were a number of children visiting at the same time and their reactions suggest this was a welcome addition.

Coming to this exhibition with little to no knowledge of the cities and their discovery, and only a basic knowledge of the period covered, it is engaging and informative. If I had one gripe it would be that the labels in some sections were too repetitive – a fact that would doubtless have been more exasperating for a more knowledgeable visitor. Sunken Cities gets off to an impressive start but loses its way slightly by the end. Nonetheless, this is an exhibition which affects in a way I’ve not experienced before. If you can get beyond issues with the sponsor it’s definitely worth a visit.

Sunken Cities is at the British Museum until 27th November 2016.

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Fire! Fire!, Museum of London

The Museum of London's immersive new exhibition on the Great Fire of London opened last month to mark 350 years since the disastrous event took place. The exhibition space is darkly lit, a fake London street has been partly constructed, genuine artifacts adding to the authenticity. Fire! Fire! has been designed to appeal to all ages with plentiful activities throughout and simple questions to help children engage with the topic. They have the balance right - it may be accessible for young visitors but it does not feel like a children's exhibition, having plenty to offer adult guests. The layout is logical, taking you through how the fire started, what happened while attempts were made to put it out, and finally the aftermath. It leads the visitor to ask questions that are answered later in the exhibition, a solid technique.

The enormity of the fire is really brought home as you walk through the space. The timeline detailing the major events in the spread and curtailment of the fire and the map of London being consumed by (virtual) flames evokes the seriousness and horror of the inferno. The firefighting equipment on display highlights their ineffectiveness against such a blaze when all conditions aligned perfectly for its rapid spread. The section designed as a camp for the tens of thousands made homeless feels claustrophobic, the devastation it wrought on those who were in the most part without homes for eight years is palpable.

Overall a very well put together exhibition which successfully takes such a well known event and adds to it, dispelling many a myth along the way. There are items on display that were salvaged from the wreckage with x-rays to give a clearer view, but a highlight for me were the designs proposed for a new London. The rebuild was controversial for its dedication to the original road layout -  a topic that continues to be hotly debated by historians today.

Atmospheric, original, and informative, this is definitely worth a visit. Fire! Fire! will be at the Museum of London until 17th April 2017.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

Wilderness Festival, 4th-7th August 2016

Sunset over the campsite on the first night
Over a long weekend in August Cornbury Park's ancient woodlands were transformed into a playground for adults and children alike. Thousands descended on this peaceful Cotswold estate for Wilderness Festival 2016. Revellers enjoyed the refreshing cold of the lake or stayed safely in the boats gliding along the surface if they did not wish to brave a bracing swim. Wandering the main festival site snippets of debates and talks escaped from marquees, latecomers lounged in the sun nearby, raucous laughter erupted, the strains of music could be heard, and the smells of a wide array of street food constantly tempted the tastebuds.

The Atrium
With talks ranging from Artificial Super Intelligence  to Brexit, the  Brontëto dinosaurs, it proved a hard job choosing where to spend the days. The Atrium became a hub for the arts - dancers from top companies gracing the stage that moments before had been inhabited by excited toddlers. It also played host to a Disney singalong, a pop-up cinema, and a Bowie tribute concert. Variety and quality are the hallmarks of this festival that celebrates all things culture.

Making good use of the natural beauty of the surroundings, the Oxford Shakespeare Company performed an excellent, concise version of Love's Labour's Lost. There’s something quite magical about being led into the woods for an afternoon in the sun watching talented actors perform without all the modern theatre technology we are accustomed to, bringing us closer to the way original audiences would have experienced the play.

The annual Wilderness cricket match
Sunday morning saw the annual Wilderness cricket match, an event in which almost anything goes. Amusing commentary, players casually drinking on the field, and twenty-two streakers (which was eight off the current Wilderness record), this was not your average cricket match. Play itself was not without its appeals however, the Remainers plucking victory from the Brexiteers’ grasp in a nail-biting conclusion.

The Valley
As the sun set there was plenty to distract from the evening chill. Nouvelle Vague, stepping in for Daft Punk on the Atrium stage were a definite highlight. Their high-energy performance had the whole crowd dancing. Sadly, the headliners on Sunday did not quite achieve similar. The staging of the Flaming Lips’ set was visually impressive – colourful and unusual (a curtain of lights obscuring the band for the most part). Wayne Coyne’s performance lacked the energy needed however, and he struggled to hit the high notes. There was plenty for night owls to enjoy beyond the main stage; from the Folk Barn to the Valley – an intense experience of pounding music, lasers, and a huge crowd partying deep within the trees. No piece about Wilderness would be complete without mention of the Saturday Night Spectacle which this year featured tightrope walkers performing feats that made my stomach churn just watching them, illuminated performers providing a soundtrack on the field below.

As the forest and lights fade the memories will not. Wilderness provides the opportunity for all to enjoy losing themselves in nature – to think, to dance, to be free, if only for a weekend. 
The boating lake