Sometimes this blog takes me to new and fascinating places I never would have discovered otherwise, and sometimes it leads to a real dud of an evening. Unfortunately, this post is about the latter sort of occurrence.
I suppose this visit to the Brunei Gallery had its origins in a giveaway I entered on Goodreads about a year ago. I ended up winning a copy of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and received my copy in time to take it on a transatlantic flight with the best of intentions, hoping I’d be able to read most of it on the flight and then review it, as I was asked to do. Well, unfortunately, I didn’t count on how very long (656 pages), and let’s face it, dull, this book would be. I ended up only reading about 50 pages, watched crappy movies for the rest of the flight, and abandoned the huge, heavy book at my parents’ house (in favour of reading books from the library there that I can’t get from the libraries in Merton. This is what I mostly use visits home for (besides seeing friends and family, of course): binge-reading, and eating all the doughnuts and ice cream), never to be reviewed or read again. I still feel kind of guilty about it (and I think the fact that I never reviewed it is why I haven’t won a giveaway since), so when I saw that the Brunei Gallery (which I’d never heard of before) was hosting an exhibition entitled “Embroidered Tales and Woven Dreams” featuring textiles from the Near East and Central Asia, I thought it was a chance to redeem myself by at least learning something about the regions along the old Silk Road.
The Brunei Gallery is part of SOAS (short for the School of Oriental and African Studies…I only knew of it from watching University Challenge, and based on the picture I’d formed of it from its UC teams, I was surprised to see that most of its students appeared to be young people, rather than retirees), which is near Russell Square and the British Museum, and is fortunately free, or I’d be even more annoyed by this experience than I am already. I was initially relieved when we stepped through its doors and left all the hustle and bustle of the university behind us, but was soon dismayed when I realised just how odd this “museum” was (and for once, I don’t mean odd in a good way). No pictures allowed inside the gallery either, so this was a flop of an experience all around.
Quite frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it. Because this “museum” had no labels on anything. None. The first room we entered was a large space ringed with textiles, and they had signs with information about the regions the textiles were from, so I didn’t think too much of it at first. But then when I went into a smaller, more traditional museum-style room featuring objects from their special collections, and there still weren’t any labels, I realised there was definitely something off here. Although I often bitch about glaring spelling and grammatical mistakes on signs, or somewhat inadequate signage, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a complete lack of labels before. And now I realise just how much signs make (or break) a museum.
The exhibit primarily consisted of a load of the creepiest mannequins I’ve ever seen (creepier even than the ones at Demolition World, because these ones had more lifelike faces, and there were just so damn many of them that I felt surrounded. I usually like creepy mannequins, but these were really bad) grouped in sinister clusters, with various textiles draped over their lifeless bodies. Also, there were a few larger pieces of fabric that were hanging on the walls. I can’t even tell you if they were antique textiles, or modern examples, or where exactly each piece was from, because there was absolutely no indication given inside the exhibit (I suspect they were modern, because they were just sitting out on the mannequins, not in cases or anything, but I don’t actually know). It was really annoying because some of the signs with the country/regional information (again, the only text in the whole of the exhibit) described specific types of cloth from those regions, but then there were no items of clothing around the sign that seemed to fit what they were talking about, which made talking about them pretty damn pointless. I mean, some of the textiles were neat to look at, like one with birds and elephants on it, and another that appeared to be showing some Hindu gods, but most of them were from the Islamic world, where I believe depictions of people and animals are frowned upon (this is just going by what I’ve read in the past, certainly not from this exhibit), so they just consisted of geometric patterns; I’m sure each region uses its own particular pattern, and maybe the patterns have different symbolism, and there are different ways the cloth is produced, etc, etc, but with no information provided here on how specific pieces were made, or when, where, or why, it was really quite boring. Even the special collections section, which had some beautifully decorated Arabic books and prints, wasn’t really any more interesting, because again, I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at or what it meant.
There was what appeared to be a professor showing a group of students around whilst we were visiting, and she was giving them information about the textiles; judging by that, I have to believe that this gallery is set up mainly for professors to lecture in here to their students, or for people who already know a lot about cloth – not for the general public, because I got absolutely nothing out of the experience. With all that’s going on in the world now, and especially all these ridiculous and appalling “Muslim bans” Trump keeps trying to enact, I think this exhibit could have been a nice opportunity to educate visitors about different cultures, and try to bridge some gaps. Instead, it was a waste of a museum space, all for the want of a few captions. This is genuinely one of the worst “museums” I’ve ever visited, and it’s all the more annoying because it didn’t have to be this way; the displays would have been perfectly…well, not good, but acceptable (creepy mannequins and all!) if someone had just told me what the hell I was looking at. 1/5. Oh, there’s also a Japanese rooftop garden on top of the gallery (pictured above), but I’d save yourself the walk up the stairs in winter, because it was just a bunch of sad, wet gravel under a gloomy grey London sky. Perhaps it’s better in summer, but I won’t be rushing back to SOAS to find out.
To round out this evening of let-downs (well, we grabbed a pizza in between, and that was fine, so it wasn’t all bad), we headed to see “Love, sex and marriage…with a robot?,” a free night of lectures and performances about the ethics of “artificial companionship” at the British Academy, which I’d booked a few weeks beforehand and was genuinely excited about (it was free, but you had to book tickets in advance). Unfortunately, I was being overly optimistic about a free event in London, yet again. Even though it was ticketed, the British Academy had released far, far too many tickets. Apparently the lecture hall could only seat 120, and at least double or even triple that number showed up (I don’t want to overestimate crowd sizes here, but it was genuinely very busy).
The activities were divided between a few different rooms, with performances in one room, and lectures in another, but they didn’t have enough seats between them to accommodate everyone. We made the mistake of going to see a performance first (of a love scene from Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., which introduced the word “robot”), because we weren’t that interested in the first lecture. However, when it came time to see a lecture we were keen on, the lecture hall was still full of people who had showed up for the first lecture and refused to vacate their seats, so only a few people were able to enter (and the queue was easily a hundred people long, it stretched through the whole upstairs). So we went to watch another performance (a robot and scientist improv, which was a cute idea, and I liked how smiley and enthusiastic the scientist was, although it somewhat failed in execution), but almost half the audience rudely left in the middle of the performance to queue up for the next lecture (I didn’t because I felt really bad for the performer on account of how rude everyone else was being) so we had no hope of getting into that either. Because the other performances were repeats of the ones we’d already seen, we gave up and left at that point, despite being urged to just “enjoy the other activities.” (For the record, the other activities were buying drinks at the bar, making stuff with Lego, or drawing (bearing in mind this was an adults-only event). Look, I’m 31 years old, I didn’t get dressed and pay to come into central London in horrible rainy weather so I could play with Lego all night, when I could have been warm and dry in my jimjams at home watching the last Spy in the Wild. I didn’t even like Lego very much when I was a kid.) So I don’t know any more about the ethics of love robots than I did when I started.
I am (hopefully not unfairly) laying the blame for this squarely on the British Academy. They knew how many people their lecture theatre could accommodate, so why did they release so many tickets?! I wasn’t the only one annoyed either, as I could hear others loudly complaining, and one woman even yelling at the security guards (which was uncalled for, it wasn’t their fault). The security guard explained that because the whole building was open, the organisers thought it would be all right, but did they seriously think people would be happy to pay to stand around drinking all night, and not watch the lectures? Or that people would voluntarily leave the lecture hall so that others could come in? They might understand robots, but they sure don’t understand human nature. If they did want to overbook out of fear that some people wouldn’t show up, they could have at least alleviated the problem by holding lectures in different rooms, so that people wouldn’t be able to monopolise one seat for the whole evening, kicking everyone out of the hall after each lecture, so that other people had a chance to come in, or issuing tickets at the start of the night for each lecture, and limiting them to say, two lectures per person, so that everyone would have a chance at seeing something. This was another pointless disappointment, because judging by the lecture descriptions, this event had the potential to be really good, if only they’d been more organised. But don’t worry, I have something better to blog about next week, to end this round of damp squibs!