While it’s never made it onto my bucket list, it’s certainly somewhere that I’ve always had in the back of my mind as a place that I should definitely get along to take a look at one day. Now that day has come, so off I go to Holborn tube and take the short walk to Lincoln Inn Fields for my first ever visit to the famous Sir John Soane’s Museum. What’s prompted me to check out the place today is the flyer I was given a week or so ago by a receptionist at the Sadie Coles gallery who, apologising for the absence of the advertised exhibition of work by Sarah Lucas, said I might want go to go along to the Soane’s Museum, since it’s currently hosting a small display of her sculptures. The trustees here seem to be following the lead given by the Freud Museum in north London which regularly augments the presentation of its permanent collection by including small displays of work by different contemporary artists, in an attempt to invigorate the space and attract a wider audience. Presumably the selected artists get a special dispensation to rummage around the Museums when the public aren’t around in the hope that their inspirational juices get some kind of a boost and so lead them to produce work that specifically resonates with the allocated space. That may well be the theory but, of course, not all artists are able to work in that way and the results can be a bit mixed but, hey ho, it’s probably worth a punt and I’m sure that the Museums marketing departments are all in favour as it gives them something new to put in their press releases. So, how did Lucas fare? Well, I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs but currently I’m in danger of getting ahead of myself so let me step back a bit and rejoin the small queue waiting patiently outside the Museum. And here, before I am allowed to enter, I must listen to an ever so slightly officious woman explain that…all mobile phones must be switched off and no photographs can be taken.
I suppose it’s a bit of an infringement of my human rights to be disallowed to make a telephone call wherever and whenever I want to but, since entry to the Museum is free, I’m willing to accept this curtailment of my freedom, although it’s a pity about the no snaps policy. A couple of quick shots would be able to give a good idea of what the place is like but instead I’ll try my best to convey the general atmosphere of dust and clutter. Having entered the Museum, it doesn’t take very long to discern that Soane was something of a collectomaniac and a hoardaholic, or whatever the correct term is to describe someone who can’t help buying up everything that catches his eye and then cramming it into every tiny nook and cranny of his house. Being a successful architect, famous for designing the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, it’s not too surprising that what interested him most was stuff that related to his profession, so that every inch of wall space is covered in a mosaic of paintings, prints and plaster casts of architectural ornaments garnered from the classical monuments of ancient Greece and Rome. But the collection isn’t just limited to these chunks of pilasters and capitals and stacks of decorative reliefs, there’s also a massive Egyptian sarcophagus, a copy of the Apollo Belvedere, the death mask of Admiral Parker, a bust of General Blucher and doubtless somewhere in the backroom is Cleopatra’s kitchen sink next to Indiana Jones’ Ark of the Covenant. And then in the special, separate Picture Room, alongside a number of drawings of the buildings that Soane himself designed are paintings by Canaletto and Hogarth, a decent Turner and quite of lot of rather less interesting bits and bobs.
To say that the collection is full of many interesting curios is something of an understatement but the labelling is patchy and everything is so cramped and chaotic that it’s quite hard to see anything very clearly or to know exactly what it is that is being looked at. I can’t help thinking that it would be nice to clear everything out and re-site it all into a proper custom built venue, double the space and with proper lighting, and then re-catalogue all the stuff into some kind of coherent order before adding on a bigger shop and a swanky new café and…But none of this is ever going to happen and, doubtless for most people, it’s the very carefree disorder that gives the collection its unique charm and attraction. And I suppose that there is some value in being able to see this peculiar time capsule that reveals how the rich, patrician amateurs acted back in the 18th century, accumulating their collections and revealing an example of the mindset that ultimately lead to the creation of places like the British Museum, the Tate and all the other great national collections.
Considering myself to be located toward the neurotically ordered end of the international spectrum of tidiness, I find the Museum all a bit frustrating and irritating, so I’m feeling a bit grizzly by the time I locate the room where Lucas has been allowed to site her sculptures. And my mood doesn’t improve. There’s a small sign outside the room cautioning that ‘this exhibition contains nudity’ and it’s surprising that the morality police have omitted to issue a further warning against the perils of tobacco, since the display also contains live cigarettes which, as is well-known, are a favoured leitmotif of the artist. Nudity, tobacco…well, Lucas has built her very successful career on creating work that is considered by most to be, if not exactly shocking, a very deliberate display of vulgarity and bad taste. Doubtless, her fans will be pleased to learn that despite or, more likely, because of the revered establishment nature of the current location she has determinedly decided to uphold her bad girl reputation and show work that is provocatively coarse.
As for the nudity, well, her crudely executed life casts are certainly topless, the female figures having been bisected just above the navel as if some would be Paul Daniels has committed a terrible blunder on his Debbie and actually managed to saw the assistant neatly in half. What we’re left with is three anonymous pair of legs and a bit of midriff casually sat on some chairs. Following on from the hints I’ve already given, you can almost certainly guess where the cigarettes have been placed, or should I say inserted. Suffice to say that it’s probably best not to try to imitate any these poses at home although, should you throw caution to the wind and give it a go then you’re not going to be able to inhale unless you are particularly skilled. Shocking – no, but a bit embarrassing – yes, definitely and as for the relevance to the spirit of Soane, except for the fact that she’s used his beloved plaster casts, I really can’t see any at all.
After that display of crudity I think it’s time to regain a little decorum, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, whose eponymous founder was a sort of 20th century version of the 18th century Soane prototype. Instead of architecture, the general theme to the collection here is medicine, albeit in its widest interpretation and again, alongside the permanent displays, there are also temporary exhibitions though not from individual artists but on various medically-related themes – with the current topic being that of Consciousness. The first three items greeting the visitor give a pretty good indication of what the show is all about, with equal weight being given to both artistic representation and scientific illustration, so there’s a 19th century William Blake print of a soul hovering above the body of the deceased; a 16th century Jainism religious textile showing the universe in the form of a cosmic man; and Rene Descartes’ drawing of a dissected brain, showing the pineal gland that, apparently, he thought was the literal, biological bridge between body and soul.
Elsewhere, we get to see a video clip of the early silent movie of the Cabinet of Dr Caligari, some documentary photographs on mesmerism, paper cuttings about a sleep walking murderer, people falling under anaesthesia, part of a research paper on synaesthesia and so on and on. The curation looks a bit wobbly to me and not too far from the Soane style of grab as much vaguely related stuff and cram it all together in a random assortment, instead of a trying to encourage some kind of coherent debate about the changing nature of our understanding about what consciousness actually is. And so while all the individual items on display are, of course, all very interesting in their own right, I’m not sure that looking at any of this is going to broaden anyone’s understanding of the current philosophic thinking on the matter of consciousness. Most strange of all is that, at the very time when super computers are beating humans in games like chess and, more recently, Go, and when eminent scientists like Professor Hawking are warning us about the potential dangers of autodidactic computers, there seems to be no reference at all to the relationship between consciousness and Artifical Intelligence. I didn’t spot a single neural network, let alone a Shwarzenegger style Terminator or a HAL 9000 computer, which makes me think that the curators maybe need to broaden their cultural horizons to include a bit of sci-fi.