I finally visited a proper museum for the first time since March, and certainly not without trepidation. But in light of the fact that I thought I might have to return to the office in September anyway (which has fortunately been postponed til October), I reckoned I should take the plunge and see how other museums were handling opening in the age of Covid. Because I am still apprehensive about taking public transport, I was actually more comfortable with visiting a museum two and a half hours away in Bath than one in London, since at least we could drive there, and because Holburne Museum’s Grayson Perry exhibition was one of the places I was planning on visiting right before lockdown happened, I thought it was fitting that it was the first museum I visited after lockdown.
Holburne Museum advised pre-booking (admission is £11, or £5.50 with Art Pass, which you better believe I used after not getting the opportunity to for most of the year!), although they didn’t have timed slots available; you just had to book for the day you wanted to visit. Since I’m new to the socially distanced museum experience, I had thought that pre-booking would mean we could skip the ticket line and just go right in. Nope, there was a whole lot of queuing just to get in the door. Normally I wouldn’t care so much, but we were booked to see an exhibition at the American Museum at 2:30 and would have to leave the Holburne by 2:15 at the latest, and it was already after 12:30 when we arrived, so when we saw the sign saying it would be a half an hour wait from the point where we queued up, I was anxious we wouldn’t have time to see the exhibition before we had to leave. Once we got inside, the reason for the queue became clear – there was a one way system in place, and since only one set of staircases was open, they were sending everyone up in the lift, one group at a time, so you had to wait for the group ahead of you to go up before you were allowed into the ticket area. So there was absolutely no point in pre-booking since we had to pass through the ticket desk anyway, and they didn’t seem to be limiting numbers so much as just staggering entry. Considering I paid a £2 booking fee to book online, I think it’s worth knowing that it’s unnecessary!
At any rate, at least everyone was wearing masks, including all staff members (which made a nice change from some of the shops I’ve been in – looking at you M&S Food Hall), and people were practicing social distancing for the most part. There was one member of staff who was solely responsible for sending people up in the lift, and she was spraying down the lift buttons between each group, though I imagine there was still some risk just from breathing in the enclosed air in the lift if the group ahead of you had coughed or sneezed in it, but if I spent too much time dwelling on that thought, I’d never go anywhere, so best not to think about it really. Honestly, it felt safer to me than a supermarket since we weren’t touching anything and people were generally being respectful of the rules. And now (finally) to the exhibition itself!
I had never been to the Holburne before, but I get the impression from the reviews I had read of the exhibition before lockdown that it had been moved into a different area in the museum, as it was originally meant to have been in quite a small space, but the space it’s in now was reasonably open, with rope barriers set up to make sure traffic only flowed through one way. I also think only some of the museum was currently open to the public, and that the Grayson Perry exhibition was in what were normally permanent galleries. And honestly, I really liked some aspects of the new museuming experience, such as the fact that the staggered entry meant that there weren’t many people in the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait around to look at things like we normally would in a special exhibition; we could just flow through (at least until we worked our way up to the slow moving group in front of us, and had to wait for them to finish since we couldn’t go around them, but we were fortunately near the end of the gallery, so we didn’t have to wait for long).
I also liked Grayson’s art, which was in his typical irreverent style – in fact, probably even more irreverent than some of his later work, as there were penises (penii) and sacrilegious imagery aplenty in here (I especially like Charles I hunting with his dong out, above right)! The works on show were from early in Perry’s career, from the years 1982-1994, and this seems to have been before he started using tapestries and other media, since nearly everything here was pottery. These were also the years when Perry was beginning to explore cross-dressing and was in the process of developing his Claire persona (if you’re not familiar with Perry, he sometimes appears in drag as his alter ego Claire), so a lot of the works were explorations of masculinity or depictions of middle aged women that he was using as inspiration to develop Claire.
Some of these pieces were genuinely laugh out loud funny, and though I could have done with more text in some places (although conversely, I would say some of the pieces themselves had too much text. I think Perry got a little text-happy when he was churning out pieces quickly since it’s clearly easier to stamp text on than do an actual drawing, and he admitted himself that it was a period in his life when he was just trying to make money), I think there was a good balance in terms of providing a decent amount of background, but not giving people so much to read that they couldn’t pass through in a timely manner (except the people in front of us, of course, but that’s always the way). The exhibition filled one medium sized gallery and flowed across the museum into half of another permanent gallery, with seventy items in total to look at, including a short film. Although I was worried we wouldn’t have enough time, since we didn’t even enter the museum until 1, we actually managed to see the exhibition in good time and take a quick look around the rest of the museum because only a small amount of it (I’m assuming, since I don’t know how big it normally is, but there were definitely areas we couldn’t enter) was open.
The Grayson Perry exhibition was on the 2nd floor, and we were asked to make our way back down via the stairs (though I’m sure they will take you back down in the lift if needed) to make the one way system work. The other galleries contained a few portraits (seemingly mainly by Gainsborough) and a collection of ceramics (though no delightful Staffordshire murdery ones, I’m sad to say. These were much more boring than that) and I was speeding through them so we had time to see everything before I realised that’s all there was! Clearly the main focus right now is Grayson Perry, since the exhibition is only temporary, though it has been extended until January 2021 to give people time to visit.
Since it was a long drive from London, despite doing my best to avoid using public toilets, I didn’t really have a choice, so I did nip into the basement to avail myself of the Holburne’s facilities. And I was definitely impressed! I was the only person in there, and I could tell they had just been cleaned, since they were spotless and well stocked with plenty of soap and paper towels (and hand sanitizer, but that makes my hands feel a bit gross. I’d much rather use actual soap and water if it’s available!), and a cleaner popped in right after I had finished, so honestly, museum toilets (at least at this museum) are definitely preferable to those in a service station or something. On the whole, I enjoyed my visit to the Holburne, mainly because it was nice to visit a museum again after so long! Although it would have been nice if they’d made it clearer on their website that pre-booking really wasn’t necessary, once we got inside, I could tell they were doing everything possible to ensure a safe experience for their visitors. I do think £11 is a little expensive for the exhibition, but I was perfectly happy with my half-price admission, and I know they must be in need of money, so I really can’t begrudge them trying to get everything they can right now. Having seen both now, I can say that I prefer Perry’s later work to his earlier pieces, especially the excellent exhibition I saw at the Serpentine a few years ago, but if you like Grayson Perry’s style, you’ll like his early stuff too, just maybe not quite as much. 3/5.