My Top 5 Exhibitions of 2019

I know it has been very quiet on the blog front here at the Welsh Historian, but it is because I have been working non-stop. Organising events programming at the Jewish Museum and working at a cocktail bar in the evenings, surprisingly, does not give much time for anything. Let alone blog entries!

2019 has been a massive year of change for me and an absolutely amazing year for exhibitions in the UK. In the little spare time I have had off work, I have visited some absolutely groundbreaking exhibitions focusing on a plethora of topics, ranging from Tutankhamun to Troy, Keith Haring to Hogarth, there were too many to choose from to pick one favourite. So, I have decided to give my top 5 exhibitions of the year…

The Art of Persuasion: Wartime Posters by Abram Games- National Army Museum

Although they did not call the exhibition ‘War Games’ (a missed opportunity I know!) I really enjoyed visiting this exhibition. Having visited the National Army Museum only a handful of times before, I was pleasantly surprised at the layout of this exhibition. Inspired by his Jewish heritage, his experiences as a soldier, and the turbulent politics of the time, Games used his talent for visual communication to recruit, educate and influence soldiers and civilians alike. His posters took on a modernist approach and would have stood out , becoming very effective in recruiting. He designed the iconic WAAF poster below which dramatically increased enrolment in young women.

The exhibition layout was extremely engaging, showing the thought process behind the designs. Games using simple imagery to convey a clear artistic image and message. One of the best displays was that the gallery showed posters under different coloured lighting to show how different aspects of the images stood out in different colours, completely changing the images and our concept of them.

Manga- The British Museum

This exhibition was a personal highlight for me as I had access to the exhibition after hours and managed to take my sister, who is a big fan of manga comics. As someone who had never read manga before, the opening graphics explaining how to read manga and what certain images and symbols meant to the story, were extremely helpful and made the exhibition more accessible to me as a viewer. One main topic that was notable was the spotlight that was shone on female manga artists who have made strides in a male-dominated field to make girl-comics more mainstream and open the genre to include young women. I enjoyed the exhibition so much that I wrote a blog article about it earlier this year. You can find the article here:

Tutenkahmun- Saatchi Gallery

I want to say firstly, I had a strong moral objection to going to this exhibition as at £33 a ticket, I believe that the Saatchi Gallery were making this amazing exhibition completely inaccessible to a whole demographic of the British public and tourists. I think that it is wrong for museums and galleries to restrict exhibitions based on financial income and it completely cut of a whole new audience of museum goers who might have found inspiration when a museum would not normally be their first choice of entertainment. However, my parents were visiting me and decided to treat me with a ticket so I decided to go. I acknowledge the privilege that I have had to be able to spend that much on an exhibition ticket and thus, whatever I thought of the exhibition, I would not give it a review without mentioning how despicable I find it, as someone who works in the museum sector, to charge visitors such an extortionate amount.

I am also extremely dismayed to inform readers, after that outburst, that this exhibition was beautifully displayed. Every object was extremely well lit and well preserved. Half of the objects looked as if they were brand new, the level of care and conservation of these objects is the best I have ever seen. Golden statues with such ornate details shone amongst the alabaster and lapis lazul. I have been extremely lucky to view these amazing objects in my lifetime. I will say however, that the audio-guide (that was an extra cost, no surprise) did not have as much information as one would suspect due to the price of the ticket. It would have been extremely helpful to have a graphic at the start of the exhibition, such as the one in the British Museum’s Manga exhibition, of the common Egyptian symbols that were prominent in the collection and explaining their significance to the various Gods of Ancient Egypt.

If you can afford the price, and be lucky enough not to endure the crowds on the weekend, I would recommend this exhibition. Solely for the plethora of perfectly preserved objects.

Keith Haring- Tate Liverpool

The Tate Liverpool’s exhibition on Keith Haring was extraordinary. Stepping into the legendary New York art scene in the 1980s, you are submerged into a world of political activism through simplistic figures and shapes. The Director of Tate Liverpool Helen Legg states: ‘Haring united the realms of uptown high art and downtown street culture, in turn expanding the legacies of pop art to address the most urgent political and social issues of his time”.

Through the exhibition we see his natural talent being combined with performance art pieces as he draws characters on posters in the subway and draws a continuous piece barefoot until he is trapped on a corner of his own canvass. He blends themes of LGBT rights, space exploration and drug use into complex tapestries where each small aspect of his work creates a masterpiece of excitement and individualistic beauty. His voice being used as an advocate for LGBT rights has made him a very well known figure in New York, and it was astonishing to see how much his work resonated with visitors in the United Kingdom who had perhaps not known him before attending the exhibition. I personally enjoyed the exhibition so much I bought a poster AND a catalogue (I often have to restrain myself from buying museum catalogues but this one was too good to resist)! I loved that such a huge groundbreaking exhibition was shown outside London, making the art world open itself to new audiences.

Troy: Myth and Reality- British Museum

The Troy exhibition at the British Museum was one that I really enjoyed due to my severe lack of knowledge of the Ancient world. I had grown up reading the Greek myths through children’s story books, but had never studied Ancient Greece academically. The whole Helen of Troy and Paris story has been played out in Hollywood and replicated in so many different works of fiction. However, I did not happen to know the origins of the tale. As per usual, the plight of the people of Troy originated with the Gods fighting and causing trouble for each other.

Eris, goddess of discord, has not been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis so she takes her revenge, throwing a golden apple amongst the guests to cause trouble. The apple bears the inscription ‘for the most beautiful’ and three goddesses fight to claim it. Zeus asks Paris, the Trojan prince, to act as a judge. Each goddess offers Paris a bribe for him to choose her. Aphrodite, who promises the love of the world’s most beautiful woman, wins. The woman is Helen, married to Greek king Menelaus. Paris steals her and takes her across the sea to Troy. The Greeks retaliate and assemble a large fleet commanded by king Agamemnon of Mycenae and lay siege to Troy for many years.

This introductory story was shown through many objects, such as pottery, and through very interesting visuals, projections of the Gods, helping explain the imagery on the pottery.

The exhibition then tells the tale of the great battles between Troy and the Greeks. Many stories of different characters get brought to the forefront of the exhibition, but one mention that stood out was the mention of potential homosexual relationships. On a sarcophagus we see Achilles grief-striken as his friends bring him the dead body of Patroclus, his closest friend and probably lover. Achilles takes out his revenge soon enough and eventually gets wounded, which, a prophecy once foretold, meant that death was soon to come.

I would recommend this exhibition to those who wish to gain a further insight into the tale of Troy and the famous Trojan horse. As the objects were not in great shape due to wars, colonialism and general damage due to age, the British Museum made a great deal of effort explaining the stories behind the artwork and objects, more than the Audio-guide at Tutenkahmun. It helped me gain a great foundation to build upon, to explore more ancient history in 2020.

I wish to all my readers a very happy New Year. May everybody have a lovely 2020 and I hope to see you all return to this blog in the upcoming year.


Manga Madness: An after hours look at the British Museum’s Manga Exhibit

One of the perks of my new job at the Jewish Museum in London is that the staff get invited to exclusive events within the museum community, often this includes free entry and after hours viewing of museum exhibitions. As any sane person would, I try to take advantage of these perks as much as I can (to the point where I probably annoy my co-workers asking what other things we get for free). One of the most recent invitations was to an after hours community evening at the British Museum to view their Manga exhibit. This luckily coincided with my manga-mad sister Lauren visiting me for a few days, so we hurried along to the British Museum for my sister to see some of her favourite manga comics displayed, and for me to learn more about this art form.

Manga interpretation of Alice in Wonderland

Firstly, I need to admit that I knew next to nothing about manga comics so I was pleasantly surprised about how accessible the exhibition was to me, a non-fan of the art form. As soon as you enter the exhibition you are informed about where manga is said to have originated and how to read manga (for a beginner). There is no specific origin of the Manga art form as one could argue, the style of drawing has always been present in Japanese art. The comics are read from the top right to bottom left hand side of the pages and the museum had fun, engaging images displaying this.

How to read manga from top right to bottom left!

You then, have interviews by prominent figures in the manga community explaining how manga became such an important part of Japanese culture and why it has, in recent years, a wider appeal to western society with Studio Ghibli films and cartoons such as Pokemon having had a big impact on adult and children’s entertainment in the last twenty years. One thing that was notable is the spotlight that was shone on female manga artists who have made strides in a male-dominated field to make girl-comics more mainstream and open the genre to include young women.

One artist, Hagio Moto, was featured as the leading author of shōjo (girls) manga. She published her first manga, Rulu and Mimi, in 1969, aged 20. She is a key member of the Year 24 Group who are said to have revolutionised shōjo manga in the 1970s. Hagio also writes in other genres such as Boys Love which is a popular homoerotic genre. Such pioneers show that the Museum is succeeding in showcasing multiple aspects of the manga universe and not just the male-dominated mangas that are well-known to the West.

There were the well known favourites such as Astro Boy which is manga-master Tezuka Osamu’s most popular manga and anime series. Astro Boy is one of the most well-known characters in the manga world and has had many spin offs as well as being adapted into Hollywood films. Other favourites, such as Deathnote and Attack on Titan were also featured in the exhibit, Attack on Titan being represented by the unnerving giant head of a Titan.

Lauren really appreciated that there was a manga library in the middle of the exhibit where visitors could sit down and peruse the different manga genres and different popular titles. This was also a massive positive for me, getting to actually read the comics after finding out more about the process behind it and finding out about the authors made me appreciate and take an interest in manga. There was even a comic about the British Museum where Professor Munakata (one of Japan’s most popular manga characters) investigates the disappearance of the Stonehenge megaliths. His investigation leads him to the British Museum where there is a plot that puts the Rosetta Stone in grave danger!

I would definitely recommend a visit to this informative exhibition. As someone who had no idea about manga comics I thoroughly enjoyed learning about this genre of art and it was great to be able to experience this exhibition with a fan of manga, my sister.


Day of Dissent: Ian Hislop’s Exhibition at the British Museum

I recently visited London in order to graduate from King’s College London, saying goodbye to the student part of my life and saying hello to the hopefully short ‘unemployed historian’ chapter. As I was spending a week in the city I desperately want to get back to I decided to put on my tourist gear and head to the museums (a hobby I regrettably never took full advantage of whilst living in London). My first stop was to see Ian Hislop’s exhibition “I Object”: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent and I was not disappointed.

If anyone doesn’t know, Hislop is an entertaining character in the British media having been the editor of renowned satirical paper ‘Private Eye’ since 1986 and for his witty, cutting comments on ‘Have I Got News For You’. Naturally, since satire and political lampoonery have shaped his career, it seems very fitting that he chose to create an exhibition on dissent and resistance all over the world, hand choosing objects, artwork and clothing that have defied religions, governments and wars throughout history. The objects that show dissent in this exhibit hail from a wide range of countries across very different eras and regimes. The acts of dissent as well vary from possible mistakes such as a misprint ‘thou shalt commit adultery’ in a King James Bible, to outright political statements such as a coin defaced by the women’s suffrage movement stamped with the slogan “votes for women’. As well as choosing the objects himself, Hislop has plaques around the exhibit telling the audience the reason why he chose these specific objects and asking questions about how we might oppose the status quo in our everyday lives. He interacts with the public throughout giving the reader a chance to think deeper about the objects on display and how dissent is shown in national media today.

These photographs from the exhibit above are just a small number of objects on display at the exhibit. The plate ‘Say yes to vodka! Papa Mikhail says no to vodka!’ from Russia around the year 1991 reproduces a Soviet-era anti-alcohol poster from the 1950s. The plate satirises the temperance movement of the 1980s instigated by Gorbachev. This type of satire is perceived to have been made after the collapse of the Soviet Union as an act of blatant opposition such as this would have no doubt had dire or even lethal consequences.

The image of the Hindu goddess Kali shows a very popular act of political dissent of creating images where a figure ‘wears the enemy’ to show violence and victory. The image, estimated to be created around 1895, shows the goddess of destruction wearing a necklace of severed heads to signify the death of the ego. The heads being painted akin to European skin tone and fashion can be seen to signify the politicians of colonial powers as the Indian people start to form a fight for independence. This act of sedition, showing Kali to represent all of India defeating the British colonisers is a great image to represent the tensions in India at the time.

Trump. Oh god I know I know, everything in the media today is all about Trump since he won in 2016 so it would be irresponsible not to include an object of dissent from the Tump era. On January 21st 2017, women from all over the world gathered in cities to march against Donald Trump being elected to the highest office in the United States. One of the main reasons why women marched all over the world was for his derogatory comments and actions towards minorities, disabled people and women. The infamous “grab her by the pussy” comment sparked outrage from women across the globe. One act of defiance in the march was the wearing of pink ‘pussy’ hats which aimed to reclaim the word as a form of empowerment and show that women can and will fight these comments and injustices. This modern act of defiance sparked other movements such as the Me Too campaign which highlighted sexual assault across the globe and sought to hold those accountable for their crimes.

My favourite piece from the exhibition however, was one that directly poked fun at the British Museum itself. This piece of wall art was created by the infamous graffiti artist Banksy showing a seemingly primitive drawing of a man with a trolly going out to fetch a killed buffalo. This ‘cave painting’ fragment was hung in the British Museum unbeknownst to the museum staff for three days. It was even given a fake identification number and label mimicking the other labels at the museum. Part of the label reads that the painting was created by a Banksymus Maximus stating that the majority of his work has not survived due to “zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of drawing on walls”. The museum was alerted to this fake by Banksy’s website and it is a perfect representation of dissent at the expense of the museum.

The exhibit is a must see for anyone who enjoys satire and resistance to the status quo and depicts both funny and very serious acts of defiance to regimes around the world. It teaches us that we should always question our governments and not just willingly accept the status quo if it does harm or promote injustice. It is a love letter across the ages to those who sought to have their voices heard and defy those who ruled them no matter how covert or outrageous. It is a homage to satire and resistance telling the audience that there should always be debate and opposition to make the world a more learned place.

(All images were taken at the British Museum and all objects belong to the museum. The exhibit ‘I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent’ is in the British Museum until the end of January)