A Trip to the V&A

I finally got to visit the new V&A museum and gallery which opened on the riverfront of Dundee recently, which included an enjoyable train trip up from Edinburgh, which takes you across both the massive Forth Rail Bridge and the Tay Rail Bridge to cross both huge firths. The Tay Bridge, while not enjoying the iconic status of its southern cousin on the Forth, has an eerie side to it – as you cross, if you look out the south side of the structure you can clearly see the line of the remnants of piers, which once held up the first Tay Rail Bridge.

Vid - Crossing the Tay

I snapped these two out of the train window, so they’re not the sharpest

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That bridge was an engineering marvel of the age, the designer was knighted for his works, Queen Victoria even travelled over it returning on the Royal Train from a stay at Balmoral. However on December 28th, 1878, a huge, gale-force winter storm struck the Tay, and it transpired that it hadn’t really been designed to take that force hitting side-on to bridge and train. A passenger train was lost as the bridge collapsed, taking sections of bridge and the train with it, seventy five people plunging into the cold waters below, all lost. The replacement bridge runs right alongside the original’s route, but was, as you can imagine, built to be far sturdier, and remains in service to this day. The remnants of the first bridge’s piers now remain like tombstones, a ghostly reminder to all who cross the bridge of the one that was there before.

The V&A Dundee is a striking building, right on the riverfront, next to the famous polar exploration vessel Discovery and its own museum, and right across from the train station, so pretty perfect for visitors to the city.

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It’s an impressive space inside, two main wings, with a lot of open space, windows often giving sudden glimpses of the bridge, the silvery Tay (the most powerful river in the British Isles) and the tall ship, Discovery.

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There are permanent exhibits, many global, but also a good selection that reflects the culture, arts, crafts, industrial, scientific and engineering history of Scotland, with some there drawn from its host city Dundee’s own history, as well as travelling exhibitions (the current one is on tartans).

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(above: the Oak Room designed by the great Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Miss Cranston’s tea rooms. Below: the Kinloss Psalter, a beautiful illuminated work though to date from between 1500 – 1530 CE)

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Happy 110th birthday, Kelvingrove

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Today marks the 110th anniversary of a true Scottish institution opening its doors to the public: on May 2nd, 1901 the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum first admitted the people of Glasgow and Scotland to enter within this temple of delights. Generations of Scots have grown up with the Kelvingrove, walking through the pleasures of nearby Kelvingrove park, or coming down from the Gothic spires of nearby Glasgow University and the Bohemian pleasures of studenty Byres Road, to the banks of the Kelvin and this palace of wonders and knowledge and art. Those generations include me: like many children growing up in Glasgow the Kelvingrove was a regular pleasure, my parents taking me in there. It was my childhood idea of what a great museum should be – knights in shining armour, Egyptian mummies, mighty dinosaur skeletons! My, what treasures to delight a wee boy, to spark his imagination and generate a lifelong love of history and learning.

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And the adult me adores it still – when my friend (who also grew up visiting the Kelvingrove) and I went through after the museum re-opened after an extensive refurbishment we both still loved it. A real Supermarine Spitfire hanging from the cieling in one gallery right above a giraffe! An Egyptian sarcophogus. Exquisitely made medieval armour – among the many collections the museum enjoys an international reputation for is its arms and armour, it boasts one of the finest collections anywhere. And then those light filled upper galleries full of artworks, from the Scottish Colourists and the Glasgow Boys to an international panoply of artists of the ages. It is the first place I saw Salvador Dali’s powerful Christ on the Cross, an amazing work even to those of us who have no truck with religion. And it is still free – free to all the citizens of Glasgow and Scotland and our visitors, a people’s palace, open to and run for the people of its city and country, long may it continue.

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With all the stress of modern life and the constant stream of bad news I thought a nice restful look a a video aquarium might be restful. These are the fish in the pool in the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh; I get the impression the pale one is trying to send a Morse Code message with its lips…

Giraffe Squadron

Messing around on Flickr with a new bunch of pics taken in the refurbished Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. We just don’t see enough giraffes in the same photograph as classic World War Two fighter planes.

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Floating heads

The ‘floating heads‘ sculptures hanging in one of the wings of the newly refurbished Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow. Gordon and I spent hours going round here recently; it re-opened last summer after a huge refurbishment and is, I am happy to say, even more popular than ever before. Edinburgh has the vast bulk of the national galleries and museums, but Glasgow, in true Glaswegian style, simply created large museums and galleries for themselves, all designed from their inception to be accessible to all the people of the city regardless of wealth or status.

We both grew up in Glasgow so we were in and out of this emporium of delights dozens of times as kids – the upper floors hold galleries, the lower ones the museum, so you can see everything from a Matisse to a mummy to a suit of armour to artefacts from Saint Kilda to dinosaurs and even, in one wing, an actual Spitfire fighter plane hanging from the ornate ceiling like the world’s biggest kid’s model on a string. We both found that same child-like fascination was still engendered by this magical place and spent hours going round it; still one of my favourite places in the whole world and so, so happy to find a place that enchanted, amazed and educated me as a child still did the same now.

Millennium Clock

Since my new camera has better video and sound functions than the old one I shot some footage of the Millennium Clock going through its paces in Edinburgh’s Royal Museum. Shame I had to seriously reduce the quality so it would suit YouTube, but since it is a free video hosting service I suppose I shouldn’t complain.

Ivor the Engine

Walking round the Museum of Scotland with my mum and dad the other day we heard a noise, “scccchhhhhhhhhhhhh tpppptt, scccchhhhhhhhh tpppptt…”. Looking down from the gallery we were on we realised an engineer had started up the gleaming steam engine on the floor below us. This modern addition to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh takes you round Scotland’s history in chronological order, starting at the entrance with Pictish standing stones, taking you through the early Kingdom of the Scots and on. By the upper floors you reach the Industrial Revolution – there is a large stone building actually inside the museum housing a Newcomen style ‘atmospheric engine’ (the earliest steam engines, before James Watt improved them) with the wooden beam projecting from the stonework. Beside this is this working steam engine; when we passed it we noticed the can of oil and the dirty rag on top and realised someone had been working on it – of course we hoped we’d see the engineering curator come back and start her up.

While walking round the next floor up we heard the distinctive sound of a steam engine ‘breathing’, a dragon of iron and copper brought to life by a fusion of fire and water. Like a lot of little boys I loved steam engines as a kid; I well remember my mum and dad taking me round the steam museum at Carnforth in Lancashire, which I loved – not only did you see restored engines you saw great, rusted hulks awaiting rescue which, if you came back a couple of years later, would have been lovingly and painstakingly rebuilt by volunteers to working condition, freshly painted, brass and copper pipes gleaming.

Even better it was a living museum, not just a static exhibition; the engines would be fired, build up their steam and come to life, so much better than seeing just a static exhibit. I guess there are some things you never grow out of and I still love steam engines; the intricate movements, the harnessing of water and fire to create something new in history after thousands of years of humans relying on their own muscle or beasts of burden. Quaint today, perhaps, but world-changing, cutting edge technology at the time and still, to my mind, carrying themselves with an elegance and style no modern, more efficient engine ever quite captures; in their own peculiar way steam engines seem to be alive in a way no other machine is, breathing, pumping oil and water like blood and with a heart of fire and iron; our most mythical creature, the dragon, born anew from imagination and engineering.

Pixar – 20 Years of animation exhibition

The National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, Edinburgh is currently hosting Pixar: 20 Years of Animation. Celebrating the most famous exponents of big-screen computer animation the exhibition, as the name suggests, has material from just over two decades of Pixar studios work, from the very early shorts such as the animated desk lamp (still seen on the studio’s logo at the start of each movie) through Toy Story, Finding Nemo, the Incredibles and Cars right up to concept art for the forthcoming Ratatouille.

As you would expect for this sort of exhibition there is a lot of art on display, from preliminary sketches and storyboards (looking at the storyboards makes it clear these animators were all big comics fans as kids and never grew out of it – good on them!) through to finished works, models and maquettes (there is a cracking series of head models from the Incredibles, each showing a different expression on Bob’s face, like exhibits from the world championship of gurning) and short videos showing of different aspects of Pixar’s work. There’s a chance to get interactive with touch-screen presentations allowing more access to behind-the-scenes looks and information while the museum is running a whole series of related events, from lectures on animation, showing Pixar movies every Sunday in the lecture hall, storytelling events inspired by Pixar movies, showcases on Scottish animation and more (the NMS site has the full details).

While all of this was highly enjoyable the standouts of this exhibition are two mini-shows. The first is shown on a wide screen. Actually, a very, very wide screen. A wiiiiiiiiiiiiiddddddddeeee screen. The sort you have to swivel your head from left to right to follow movement. It takes the form of a wall of art from the Pixar crew; as the camera pans across the gallery wall (some of the pictures static, others animated) it periodically moves into a particular picture and the viewers are treated to a new animation playing on themes from previous Pixar movies, all on this enormously long screen; it is big and it is clever.

Oh but there is even better than this. There is the Pixar Zoetrope. You remember those wonderful Victorian toys for children, where a form of lampshade has a series of slightly different characters printed on it, with slots cut – spin the shade around a lamp and the figure ‘moves’. We’re all familiar with it – it is after all the basic principle all animation, from the most basic outline drawings through Ray Harryhausen stop-motion creatures right up to the most cutting edge CGI cartoons work, a sequence of still images flickering before our eyes at 24 frames per second until our eyes and our brains interpret them as movement and static cartoons come to life. Pixar’s Zoetrope is designed to explain this basic concept in the most incredibly fun way – it makes a cartoon come to life in 3-D. Victor Navone, an animator for Pixar, has a short looped video of the Zoetrope taken from the earlier show at MoMA in NYC, although, as he says himself, it simply doesn’t do justice to how it actually looks when seen with your own eyes, nose pressed up against the glass.

In a darkened room there is a large, glass case. Inside the case is a very large disc, with several rings of models of different Toy Story characters, all in slightly different poses. The disc begins to rotate slowly, speeding up; as the characters being to blur before your eyes as the frequency increases a strobe light comes on and suddenly something magical happens – the models come to life. Seriously, the illusions is utterly magical; Woody rides his horse, Buzz Lightyear balances on a ball while endless toy soldiers leap from the top of the bucket o’ soldiers, parachutes blossoming into life as they leap down. It is for all the world like having a real, solid, 3-D cartoon right there in front of you. The fact the exhibition shows you exactly how it works doesn’t detract from the magic in any way whatsoever; frankly it was worth the price of the exhibition for the Zoetrope alone. It did what a lot of the finest animation does – it makes you feel as if you are five years old again, standing with big wide eyes open in wonder. I’m still buzzing from watching it (actually watching it several times, it kept drawing me back); I saw this with my dad, the man who ensured I was raised as a Seventh Day Cartoonist, and we both emerged with smiles like Cheshire Cats to my patiently waiting mum (with them both retired now and me off this week we were having a very nice day together, food, drink and sightseeing).

The Edinburgh exhibition runs through until May 28th at the National Museum of Scotland, along with a raft of supporting events, with full details to be found on the NMS site. And when you come out one of the other exhibitions on at the National Museum currently boasts a huge, shiny rocket straight out of a Dan Dare comic (a Black Knight rocket from the aborted 50s British space programme, which is pretty much the same as Dan Dare in so many ways) and an actual NASA Gemini space capsule on loan from the Smithsonian.