The Sun: Living With Our Star – Science Museum

exhibition entrance

I managed to make it to the Science Museum‘s exhibition The Sun: Living With Our Star before it closed. The exhibition looks at the history of humanity’s knowledge and beliefs surrounding the Sun and the part it plays in our actual and our imaginative lives.

Early humanity’s belief in sun gods searched for explanations as to why the Sun appeared to rise and set every day; we see statues of sun gods from various cultures, including one of the Sun being pulled across the sky by a chariot. In the early sixteenth century, Copernicus challenged the idea that the Sun went round the Earth, supported by Newton 200 years later. From the earliest times, sundials were used to tell the time: there are examples from the Anglo-Saxon era on display. Later, the development of clocks made the Sun less important for telling the time, and nowadays standard time is taken from a network of atomic clocks.

From the earliest times the Sun has been associated with good health. Apollo was the Greek God of the Sun, light, truth and healing, while apothecary shops often had the Sun as their symbol. In the 1880s, scientists learned that ultraviolet light can kill TB bacteria: sunbathing was encouraged, and sanatoriums were opened, often in places like the Swiss Alps, emphasising fresh air, sunlight and good food. Later, suntans became fashionable, as holidays in the UK and abroad were seen as a sign of wealth.

tb poster

On the other hand, sun exposure has risks, many of which have always been known about. In recent times there have been campaigns to reduce sun exposure and lower levels of skin cancer. Inuit people have been using snow goggles to protect their eyes from the glare of the Sun for thousands of years; the first sunglasses as we know them were used by Venetian gondoliers in the 1700s. Sunglasses became fashionable in the 1950s but rarely offered ultraviolet protection; modern ones are usually UV-resistant.

The exhibition explored how we have taken power from the Sun, using it for heat and electricity. The Olympic torch from the 2012 Olympics was on display: each time the ceremony is held the torch is initially ignited by sunlight, with a curved mirror used to focus the flame. The Sun was responsible for one of our biggest energy sources, coal, which is made of plants and vegetation buried and transformed over millions of years. Interestingly, even in the nineteenth century some people were aware that resources such as coal were finite: a book from 1867 warns that coal will not last forever. More recently, solar power has been used as an energy source, and there have been attempts to recreate the Sun on earth with nuclear fusion: a project called ZETA aimed to do just that in the 1950s, though the claim of success in 1958 was later proved false.


The final section of the exhibition looked at how we have observed the Sun over the years and discovered more about it. The Sun is made of hydrogen and helium, discovered by splitting light into a rainbow structure through the use of a prism; this conclusion was first put forward by astronomy student Cecilia Payne in 1925. More recently, the European Space Agency Solar Orbiter is one of the most ambitious solar missions ever attempted, aiming to fly closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury. It is hoped that the mission will help us understand the origins of the solar wind.

Jewellery of the exhibition

To this exhibition I wore my Eclectic Eccentricity Helios Vintage Sun Necklace, along with a pair of brass star earrings from the same store and a sterling silver sunstone ring from now-defunct jewellery store Cheap Frills.

jewellery I wore to the exhibition

The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution – Science Museum

last tsar poster

The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution is a free exhibition at the Science Museum, looking at the life and death of the Russian royal family during the Russian Revolution. It explores their family life in the years running up to Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, the family’s murder in Ekaterinburg in 1917, and the eventual identification of their remains using DNA technology.

The science used to identify the remains of the Romanov family is the main point of the exhibition, but there is plenty of filler leading up to that, much of which I already knew having read up on Russian history and visited the St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg where the family are now buried. However, there was a very interesting display showing how Queen Victoria passed on hemophilia to many of her children and grandchildren. The DNA section was also fascinating, showing how DNA from living royals including Prince Philip was used as a comparison to enable scientists to identify the remains.

In any case, it’s a free exhibition and well worth a visit.

Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary – Tate Britain

Burne-Jones poster

The exhibition Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary at Tate Britain looks at the career of Burne-Jones (1833-1898), taking a partly chronological and partly thematic approach to his life and work. There are sections on Burne-Jones as an apprentice and as a draughtsman, revealing another, humorous side to the artist. One room looks at the pictures Burne-Jones chose for exhibition, including some of his most famous works, such as King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Another explores the portraits he painted of family and friends, while one striking room displays his Briar Rose series of panels. Burne-Jones isn’t my favourite Pre-Raphaelite, but I enjoyed the exhibition.

Burne-Jones artwork

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War – British Library

Entrance to the exhibition

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is an exhibition at the British Library that I knew I definitely wanted to see. Though the Anglo-Saxon era is not my favourite, I did study history for my degree and to some extent all periods of history are interesting to me.

Anglo-Saxon settlers from northern Europe came to Britain in the 5th century, eventually forming several kingdoms that would one day become England. The exhibition brings together manuscripts and artefacts that help to illuminate this exciting period of history.

The exhibition has some amazing treasures on display, including Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Domesday Book, and artefacts from the Sutton Hoo burial ground. It takes a broadly chronological approach, looking at how the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms developed from the first arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to the Norman Conquest.

The Anglo-Saxon era was not static; different kingdoms gained and lost power over the centuries. Early in the era, the kingdom of Northumbria was in the ascendant, while later on, Mercia became the most powerful. By the tenth century, King Aethelstan was exercising power over most of what is now England and south-east Scotland.

The exhibition emphasises the multicultural links of the Anglo-Saxon world, with connections to Ireland and mainland Europe, and its literary, artistic and scientific developments. It is a fascinating exhibition, showing that even a world over 1,000 years old can still be relevant to ours.

I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria – British Museum

Entrance to the exhibition

One of my first exhibitions of the year was the dramatically-titled I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria at the British Museum. Before visiting, I knew nothing about this Assyrian king, and my knowledge of Assyria was limited to that Byron poem. This exhibition was an eye-opener.
Assyria was the dominant power of the Middle East from approximately 900 to 612 BC. The exhibition covers this period of time, focusing on the empire’s peak when Ashurbanipal ruled.

The most fascinating part of the exhibition was the art: the friezes carved on walls depicting Assyrian conquests and disturbing tortures. The exhibition cleverly uses technology to describe and explain these carvings, which are fascinating and shine a light on this particularly violent society.
Another interesting aspect of the exhibition was its focus on the bureaucracy of Assyria: rules, regulations and plans helped its rulers to conquer.

Ashurbanipal himself was both a warrior and a master administrator. He and his family fought lions to prove their strength; the images of lions in the exhibition are particularly well-drawn. Assyrian society relied heavily on writing to organise and manage, using cuneiform, the world’s oldest form of writing.

Eventually, after Ashurbanipal’s death, his empire collapsed, culminating in the burning of Nineveh in 612 BC. His great library was destroyed, but, consisting of clay tablets which harden in the heat, its contents survived. These include the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the best-preserved copy of that masterpiece, and still a basis for modern translations.

Assyrian society, surprisingly modern in both its brutality and its bureaucracy, is a fascinating subject for an exhibition. Sadly, the remains of Nineveh, former capital of the empire, located on the outskirts of Mosul in Iraq, were attacked by Islamic State a few years ago. I was pleased to see Iraqi experts and staff of the British Museum working together to repair and restore the ruins.

James Cook: The Voyages – British Library

On the very last day of the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition at the British Library, I popped down to pay it a visit. Luckily, like all exhibitions at the BL it opens late on Tuesdays, so I was able to pop down after work.

August 2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook’s first voyage sailed from Plymouth. This exhibition examines each of the three voyages in chronological order, using original artefacts created on board ship and collected from the places Cook and his crew explored. It examines the impact the voyages – which increased awareness of many of the coasts and islands of the Pacific, unknown to Europeans despite being inhabited for thousands of years – had on the modern world, both for the British and for the people who inhabited those places, both positive and negative.

I liked the way the exhibition was set out, with Cook’s travels clearly delineated – there were plenty of maps and globes on display to show where he went. Cook’s voyages took him to South Africa and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and many islands in the Pacific, as well as, of course, Antarctica. Cook’s ship was the first to ever venture into the Antarctic Circle, and I was excited to see the entry in the ship’s log marking this momentous occasion. For most people, though, Cook’s encounters with the original inhabitants of the places he visited are probably of greater interest. While not every interaction Cook and his crew had with these people was negative by any means, there was mistrust, misunderstanding and conflict, and his voyages helped pave the way for the colonialism of later centuries, and all the atrocities that went with it.

Artefacts such as logbooks, diaries and published works are displayed, as well as paintings and drawings by crew members and those employed as artists. There are also a good number of objects and works of art made by Aboriginal, Maori, Polynesian and other peoples to attempt a more balanced perspective.

I thought the exhibition did a good job of examining Cook’s voyages, their impact, significance and consequences. I’m very glad I made the effort to go before it closed.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up – V&A

Frida exhibition

I only really became aware of Frida Kahlo when I bought a brooch from the brand Baccurelli a few years ago. Since then I’ve read a few articles, largely prompted by the new exhibition at the V&A, which I was lucky (and quick) enough to get tickets to.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up was made possible by the collection of the artist’s work that was found in her home in 2004, locked since her death fifty years previously. The exhibition focuses on her life and her self-expression, featuring her clothes, makeup, jewellery, accessories and self-portraits. While I would like to explore more of her art, I feel that her life is so fascinating and was so central to her work that I don’t think the exhibition’s focus is misplaced.

Frida was born in 1907 to a Spanish-Indian mother and a German immigrant father. Her mother, Matilde Calderón y González, and her father, Guillermo Kahlo (he changed his name from Wilhelm when he immigrated) was a photographer. Frida often accompanied her father on his assignments and developed a fascination with photography and the way it could be used to explore the self. Many of the photographs in the exhibition, both those taken by Frida and those made by others, show how she played with and shaped her identity, in one picture donning a male suit, in another photographing her and her mirrored reflection (reminiscent of her painting The Two Fridas), with others showing off her love for traditional Mexican dress.

Aged twenty-three, she went to Mexico’s most famous painter, Diego Rivera, to ask him his opinion on her art. The two fell in love and married, beginning a lifelong relationship, despite several affairs on both sides. Though they divorced once, they remarried again the next year. They set up home in La Casa Azul, Frida’s former family home, filling it with Mexican folk art and inviting many distinguished visitors to stay. Among these visitors was Trotsky (with whom Frida had a brief affair). As Communists, much of the couple’s work was related to workers’ rights, but while Diego tended to create large dramatic murals, Frida’s work was usually smaller and more intimate in tone. The pair made many trips to the USA, which Frida loved despite disagreeing profoundly with the US on many issues.

Frida experienced health problems throughout her life. Aged six, she suffered from polio, leaving her with a damaged right leg which many years later had to be amputated. At eighteen, an accident left her with further life-changing injuries, putting a stop to her studies and dreams of being a doctor. Disability and illness shaped her life, and Frida was often in great pain, but she worked to overcome it and not to be defined by it. Bedridden for many months after her accident, she painted lying down, using a special contraption created by her mother. Frida spent large portions of her life in bed, recovering from illness or operations, and transformed these experiences into art: in one picture, she has painted herself lying curled up on a hospital bed, while next to her another version of herself stands triumphant, bearing a Mexican flag.

One room particularly demonstrates the various ways in which Frida moulded her image in both compliance with and defiance of her circumstances. She frequently wore stiff fabric or plaster corsets to help support her spine, and often decorated these with symbols and drawings. She also wore flowers in her hair, weaving ribbons into her plaits in a traditional Mexican style, and used cosmetics, particularly pink and red lipstick and nail varnish from the US brand Revlon. The brightly-coloured shawls, tunics and long skirts she wore served the double purpose of allowing her to embrace her Mexican heritage and hide her corsets and damaged limbs. Many of these are displayed in the final room, some dotted with paint splashes reflecting how they were an integral part of Frida’s identity, not worn as a costume. Even when she was bed-bound, and not expecting any visitors, Frida still wore her bright clothes and put on her makeup. Her jewellery, too, was important to her: she wore large, striking necklaces, earrings and rings made of precious metals in traditional Mexican designs, as well as jade beads taken from Mayan tombs.

The video clips in this exhibition show Frida’s beauty and charisma. She is smiling and laughing, showing no signs of pain or suffering, although as she makes clear in her art and her personal journal, what is on the surface is not necessarily a reflection of what is inside. Her art is important, but after seeing this exhibition I feel like her life was also a kind of art, which she shaped with integrity and courage.

Frida Kahlo brooch by Baccurelli

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography – National Portrait Gallery

Victorian Giants exhibition

I went to an exhibition of Victorian photography at the National Portrait Gallery, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography. The exhibition featured four photographers: Oscar Rejlander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden and Lewis Carroll. These four were pioneers in the world of photography in the 1960s, sharing ideas and inspiration and creating a body of work that still looks radical decades on.

I have some familiarity with the work of Cameron and Carroll, but I was previously unaware of Hawarden and Rejlander. I particularly liked Hawarden’s portrait of a woman by a mirror, in which we see both the woman and her reflection. I also enjoyed Rejlander’s composite photograph of decadent nudes, which resembled a dramatic painting.

There was lots to enjoy in the exhibition, from candid photographs of children (I loved the grumpy child photographed by Carroll) to portraits of important figures of the age and unknown sitters dressed up as mythological figures.

Charles I: King and Collector – Royal Academy of Arts and Charles II: Art and Power – Queen’s Gallery

The Royal Academy and the Queen’s Gallery are both playing host to seventeenth-century royalty-related exhibitions this year. I don’t know if they planned it this way or not, but they certainly made the most of it, offering a joint weekend ticket including tea and cake. I’ll admit the cake swung it for me.

Royal Academy of Art

The Royal Academy exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector, was actually due to end on the day I visited, so it was very busy. This didn’t stop me from getting a good look at the works on display, however. Works are categorised by theme, with the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance and Van Dyck and Reubens in England grouped in separate rooms, or else their former location: pictures that were hung in the Queen’s House can be found in one room, and those from the Whitehall Cabinet in another. The Mortlake Tapestries adorn one room, while images of Charles I in the hunting field hang in the Central Hall.

The exhibition consists of works that were accumulated by Charles I before and after he became king. He loved art and was a keen collector, but after his execution his collection was broken up and sold off (some of the catalogues can be seen here). This exhibition reunites these works after several centuries. Some didn’t have far to come, having got back into the Royal family’s hands after the Restoration, or else having been sold to wealthy collectors in the UK. Others, however, ended up in Europe or the US, and have been loaned for the purposes of this exhibition.

I must admit that in themselves, I didn’t fall in love with many of the works on display here (though I did enjoy seeing the full-length portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, an image I recognised from A level History). However, I was impressed by the collection as a whole, and the way in which it reflects Charles’ impact on the art world.

Queen's Gallery

After my restoring cup of tea and piece of cake I walked through Green Park to the Queen’s Gallery, where Charles II: Art and Power is currently being hosted until 15 May. This exhibition follows on from and complements the Charles I exhibition, focusing on Charles II and how he made use of art to convey his power. It began with a small display of items relating to the Civil War, the execution of Charles I, and the Protectorate, and went on to focus on the art that he collected and that was produced during his reign. Some of this was originally part of his father’s collection and had been brought back; others were new acquisitions.

In terms of the historical interest, I think I preferred this exhibition, partly as it was much quieter and much easier to see the artworks. There were surprises too: for instance, I had no idea that the famous painting of Erasmus was once part of a pair, and the two paintings were attached together.

The most dramatic work in this exhibition is the huge portrait of Charles II (the one that adorns all the publicity material) that dominates the last room. In its display of power and authority it is reminiscent of the painting of Charles I on horseback displayed at the Royal Academy; knowing what happened to the first Charles, I wonder if the second Charles drew this comparison and wondered; or if he just didn’t care.

Regardless, these are a fascinating pair of exhibitions, well put together and worthwhile for their historical context as much as their artistic context.

Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond – British Museum

Living with Gods exhibition sign

Before it closed I visited the Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition was timed to coincide with a Radio 4 show on the same theme, but as I never listen to the radio, I can’t comment on that. I did enjoy the exhibition – even if I didn’t always agree with it.

Medieval skeleton relic
Medieval skeleton relic

This fascinating exhibition looks at how people over time have represented their religious beliefs. Christianity, Islam, Judaism are all represented, are as lesser-known and older religions from all corners of the globe. The exhibits are arranged by theme, with seemingly different artefacts displayed alongside one another as they are said to reflect similar aspects of belief. I particularly liked the inclusion of cheaper everyday items alongside valuable and unique artefacts.

Lion Man
Lion Man

The exhibition begins with the Lion Man, the oldest known figurative sculpture in the world that dates back 40,000 years. However, does it necessarily reflect religious belief as the exhibition claims? Regardless, it’s a fascinating talking point.

Judas-devil figure
Judas-devil figure

There is an impressive Judas-devil figure used in Mexican Day of the Dead processions. Masks from the Congo, Jewish prayer caps and Japanese phalluses linked with fertility prayers are among the varied items displayed. One of the most moving is a cross carved in 2014 from a wrecked refugee boat that carried 500 refugees; at least 360 are known to have drowned. Towards the end of the exhibition, we see how Communist regimes in China and Russia directed religious feeling towards the regime leaders and away from traditional religion. The exhibition is incredibly interesting and thought-provoking, and I’m glad I made the effort to go before it closed.