At 2015 past…
Dea Birkett reflects on the best and the worst of the year
We writers complain all the time. But it’s a great privilege to not only have time to formulate our thoughts, but to have a platform for them. So I now have the chance to tell you my highlights and lowlights of 2015 – what inspired and moved me, and what I hope I don’t have to ever experience again. Do let me know yours.
Best exhibition? The Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London. It was a challenge to display the Metropolitan Police’s “black museum” of items of evidence and goods taken at crime scenes. How to avoid sensationalism, sentimentality and salaciousness? This exhibition adopts a “fact file” approach to even the most gruesome of crimes. It’s also unflinching. Instruments seized from backstreet abortionists, when abortion was illegal in Britain, are displayed in glass cases with the same rigour of interpretation as any object. Bad things can make good exhibitions, and this is one of them.
Best opening? The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester opened on Valentine’s Day this year, following a major redevelopment. Seeing it for the first time I felt like a child who had had their eyes squeezed shut, counted to ten, then opened them wide to a world of extraordinary beauty and excitement. The park outside intrudes into the building; the galleries seem to extend out in to the park. But most of all, it’s a high art gallery that’s not at all scary. It pulls off being scholarly and accessible, which is admirable. New Tate Modern extension please note; the Whitworth has set a high standard for expensive art spaces.
Best musical? Gypsy of course, with Imelda Staunton defining the role of Mama Rose (pictured), who filters all her thwarted theatrical ambitions through her two daughters. I was a friend of June Havoc, the Baby June of the musical who died five years ago aged 98. Miss Havoc despised the script for its unflattering portrayal of her as a talentless, precocious, ungrateful grasper in contrast to her kind and loyal sister, the stripper Gypsy. But Sondheim’s and Staunton’s Gypsy was sensational. I like to think even Miss Havoc would have enjoyed it.
Best book about culture? The High Line, published by Phaidon, a story of the creation and construction of an urban park in New York that has transformed how we think of reworking industrial heritage. This book traces the transformation of a disused, derelict, unloved overhead railway into a park and cultural space now visited by over six million people each year. It includes over 500 design and architectural drawings, and transcriptions of conversations between those involved in the park’s construction. The High Line is an astonishing example of parks and culture as levers for urban renewal and prosperity. This book helps to share those lessons.
Highlight or lowlight? I’m as yet uncertain where November’s Spending Review sits. The rhetoric it contains around the importance of the arts is welcome. As far as museums are concerned, it was good news for the nationals. But there are over 2,500 museums in Britain, and only 40 of them are directly funded by the DCMS. Many of the rest rely on local authority funding, whether directly or as trusts. The picture there isn’t quite as encouraging. Local cuts affect local museums. Hopefully this will be partly ameliorated by a successful funding announcement for Arts Council England, which also supports the regions. And it’s good that Libor money is being spent on museums, mostly those filled with military uniforms. But national museums need to remember the “national” in their name, and spread the benefits of their success around a little more.
A certain lowlight is that I haven’t heard, as yet, a single cultural organisation responding to the events in Paris and beyond. (I’d be delighted if someone gets in touch to correct me.) I’m sure there will be some cutting-edge plays staged in a year or two, the sort of obscure and self-referring productions that may well feature on my lowlights list for 2016. But I’m not looking for that from the arts sector. I’m looking for practical support for people who are affected, and that includes all of us here. Not in two years time. Now.
Worst museum moment? When I took my 83-year-old father, who joined the RAF aged 16, to the RAF Museum in northwest London, hoping we’d have a conversation around the collection. Searching for the single-seater Vampire he’d flown, I was told by the gallery assistant to, “Turn right at the Lancaster”. I have no idea what a Lancaster looks like. We retreated to the café. It was closed, so there was nowhere for us to sit down. We left early. The museum is one of the beneficiaries of the Chancellor’s Libor money. I’m sure it will be well spent.