Local Culture I: Life in a Museum

Should anyone out there be stuck for something to do in Swindon in the next couple of months, you might try a newly opened exhibition at the Swindon Museum and Art GalleryBack to Black… and White is the product of a project that involved local schoolkids, working in a dialogue with an archive of photos of the town from the 1940s to 1970s. The details and background to the project are here.

I have to say that it was a complete accident that I found out about this. The Museum is just down the road from where we live, and it has recently come in handy as a place to spend half an hour with a 5-year-old and an almost-1 year old. But today I managed to drag the 37 year-old (oops) in, rather reluctantly. The Museum is in fact a terrible space – no lift, in a nineteenth-century house with multiple floors, which is no good for the pram-connected. You have to get the little one out and carry her – and she’s getting heavier by the day.

But, anyway, I didn’t know this ’til we (me and the two non-reluctant ones) wandered in just before Xmas, but it turns out that the Museum houses what is meant to be one of the best collections of twentieth-century British art outside of London. Who knew? It actually consists of one piece by just about anyone you might have heard of – a Lowry here, a Freud over there, an important Ben Nicholson, apparently. Another aspect of the town’s weird legacy of mid-century civic mindedness.

The art collection and the town’s public art (statues of Diana Dors, that sort of thing) have been the focus of projects by the local public-ish-private-ish booster organisation, Forward Swindon, to make more of these cultural assets – as I said, an effort that has to address the fact that the museum and art gallery is actually such a rubbish space.

The art gallery is not very big – the size of about three squash courts, so you don’t get to see the whole collection all at once. And this new exhibition is the first time I’ve seen them showing a range of the photos that they apparently hold – a few are pasted on the walls. The Council’s full collection is on Flickr. I’m not sure why old photos of Swindon are as fascinating as they are to me – I didn’t grow up here (lucky escape). I think it might be because Swindon is quite small, so that many photos of the town are of places vaguely familiar, already. It’s also that the historical geography of the place is quite transparent, ‘cos it’s not very old, so you can see ‘layers of investment’ quite easily as you walk/drive/ride (I have a new bike!) around. Whatever it is, it’s another worrying sign of a growing attachment I seem to be developing, at least to the idea of Swindon.

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