Museums in 2020: a review

2020 has been a unique year for museums, if not for the whole world. The safety restrictions in place to protect people during the Coronavirus pandemic meant that many museums had to close for long periods and long awaited exhibitions have been delayed. Income for many places shrank following the loss of visitors. The financial implications have disproportionately affected smaller institutions. They have also had a massive impact on staff who work in the cultural sector. 

The year has not been without its pluses: many museums “went online” creating new digital collections, virtual tours or events to engage with old and new audiences. On social media, #MuseumsUnlocked organised by Professor Dan Hicks encouraged members of the public to share themed photos during the two national lockdowns in the UK.

Finally, the Black Lives Matter have raised important and long standing questions about collections, displays and policies of Western museums. This is absolutely needed and we all have a role to ensure that this is followed through and sustained.

The closure of museums has also meant that I have not been able to review as many exhibitions as previous years. So in lieu of the traditional end of year list of best exhibitions, I have decided to post a top 10.

  1. Mushrooms: The art, design and future of fungi

Amongst many other things, 2020 has been the year of the Mushroom. Several new books have been published and in the early part of the year London’s Somerset House explored how mushrooms have inspired artists throughout the centuries.

There is something uncanny about the mushrooms. As Pliny said 

“Among the things which it is rash to eat Mushrooms and toad stools. I would include mushrooms, as although they make choice eating they have been brought into disrepute by a glaring instance of murder”.

Curated by Francesca Gavin this exhibition brought together pieces by Cy Twombly, Seana Gavin and John Cage (who sourced mushrooms for chichi New York restaurants).

Photo of mushrooms growing from a tree trunk
Mushrooms
  1. Once upon a Time and Now

An online exhibition celebrating the history of women with the influence of the goddess Isis. A series of powerful and playful, thoughtful and fun works of art are brought together by Inês Mourato alongside ancient objects. The website is still live and we’re hoping that a physical exhibition can still be staged.

A particular highlight are the works of Alaa Awad which are startlingly modern yet confidently use an ancient vernacular. 

  1. Asterix warrior in Chichester Novium Museum

The excavation of a tomb to a mystery Celtic warrior with possible links to Gaul formed the basis of this small but deep exhibition in Chichester. 

helmet
Replica helmet of the Mystery Warrior
  1. Huysmans, Critique d’Art at Musee d’Orsay

Joris Karl Huysman is best known in English speaking countries for his wicked little book A rebours which tells the tale of an aesthete who withdraws from society to live in refined isolation. The goal of many people during the lockdown(s). At one point des Esseintes, the hero of the novel, develops a taste for Patristics:

“[That] special flavor which in the fourth century, and particularly during the centuries following, the odor of Christianity would give the pagan tongue, decomposed like old venison, crumbling at the same time that the old world civilization collapsed”

The exhibition explored Huysman’s art criticism during one of the most febrile periods of French Art as Post-Impressionists gave way to Symbolists. The three rooms of the Exhibition also explore different trends of display: the white cube, the late Victorian gallery and the art work as situation. The final room displays a copy of Fransco Vezzoli’s Jesus Christ Superstar a set of three based on Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.

Painting
Parsifal by Odilon Redon, Huysman’s favourite work of art
  1. Kimono at the Victoria and Albert

The kimono is ubiquitous: from the gardens of Japan to Milan and Yucatan. This versatile costume has been popular in Japan and Europe for centuries. This remarkable show tells the long history with some exquisite objects from the prints of Yoshu Chikanobu to the designs of Yayoi Kasuma. It is not afraid to explore complex and difficult topics like European and Japanese Imperialism and John Galliano.

Enticing view of Kimono exhibition
Kimono
  1. Titian at National Gallery

Philip II is still reviled in England. Schoolkids will spit when they hear his name, so associated is this figure with the dreaded Spanish Armada of 1588. A fervent Catholic, he turned his palace into a working monastery. It is intriguing then to take in the six works of art exhibited in the National Gallery this year – lavisicuos, sexual, tempting, challenging as they are – and learn that Philip commissioned them. The essential art show of 2020.

Titian painting
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne; The National Gallery
  1. Michael Clark at the Barbican

The finest practitioner of ballet today, Sir Michael Clark went from obscurity to the highest pinnacles of the cultural landscape. This exhibition, which had a delayed opening, was the visual equivalent of a Bao Bun: rich, sweet and a little messy. More please. 

Gnome
Sarah Lucas, Cigarette Garden Gnome
  1. Royal Academy: The Making of an Artist: The Great Tradition

The dispute about what’s more important going back to nature or the tradition is the artistic equivalent of “nature / nature” or the chick’n and the egg. This small exhibition was one of the first opened in Burlington House following the end of the first lockdown. It displays the many works of art belonging to Royal Academy which are copies of “Great works”. A fascinating show which asked audiences to think deeply about the nature of tradition which somehow culminates in the works of Sir Grayson Perry in the final room.

Sculpture
Attributed to Timoethus (c. 375 – 350 BCE)
  1. Andy Warhol at Tate Modern

In 2020 everyone became a celebrity, or at least a screen presence, as daily lives were mediated through phones and computers. This long planned exhibition – which opened just before lockdown in March – was both of its time and yet also a celebration of an earlier time when artists were able to party and have large groups of assistants working in their studios.

  1. British Baroque: Illusion and Power at Tate

The Baroque Age (if we can even use that term) was a complicated time of conflicting passions and movements. It is a period of some of the greatest art works: St Peters in Rome, St Pauls in London, the paintings of Poussin, Rembrandt and Artemisia, the sculpture of Bernini, the music of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. It also saw the development and economic dominance of the transatlantic slave trade and Euorpean colonialism. This exhibition explores Baroque art during the later Stuart Period. A visual feast, this absolutely beautiful show needed to engage more with the period. 

British Baroque room
Display of the Petworth Beauties