The best museum exhibitions in London
Lockwood Kipling – father of poet Rudyard – was one of those quintessentially Victorian jack-of-all-trades. An artist, designer, sculptor, teacher, curator and champion of the Arts and Crafts movement, he is largely responsible for the V&A's glittering collection of Indian cultural artefacts. This show will look at his remarkable legacy.
Mental asylums. Mind-altering drugs. Dirt. The Wellcome Collection has carved out a rep for delivering exhibitions that are outlandish without ever being sensationalist. And while the premise of their latest show – the relationship between humans and animals – might not have the same WTF factor, it’s still just as quirky and enthralling. The first room kicks off with the Enlightenment-era craze for natural classification. On display is Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus’s ‘Systema Naturae’ from 1735, which listed and filed the animal kingdom, humankind included (albeit as a kind of exception to the rule: this was pre-Darwin). So is Charles Bonnet’s ‘Scale of Natural Being’ from 1783, a league table of best to worst in which humans, naturally, come out top. Older manuscripts show delightfully crap engravings of camel-like beasts the size of houses. Rooms two and three focus on our urge to observe and display animals. Maquettes of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs – the first ever models of an extinct species – show us a Victorian wonder of the big bad lizards that’s never waned since. Dioramas of taxidermied foxes, intended to place them in their natural habitats, seem hopelessly twee and antiquated. Mind you, so do modernist architect Hugh Casson’s early-’60s designs for a radical new type of elephant house. They might replace the painted fakery with concrete, but ultimate still treat the poor pachyderm as little more than a circus spectacle. These are historical curios, but the
The V&A is a victim of its own success. Ever since the Alexander McQueen exhibition ‘Savage Beauty’, with its drama, tragedy and preposterous gorgeousness, the bar for their fashion exhibitions has been set impossibly high. While this is not another ‘Savage Beauty’, it is a thoughtful and interesting show. ‘Undressed’ tells the story of undies from the eighteenth century to more recent times. It reveals the ingenuity of underwear, from the missing bones at the back of crinolines which allowed women to sit, to corsets designed for horseriding – forerunners to the sports bra.
No one liked Victorian art in the 1960s, when Sir Frederic Leighton’s masterpiece ‘Flaming June’ couldn’t reach its ultra-low estimate at auction. No one cared about it except for Puerto Rican industrialist Luis Ferré, who spotted it in a Mayfair gallery and snapped it up for just £2,000.
Pink, heavy with embellishment, ruffled with an excess of fabric… This description fits both the beautiful denim and sweatshirt ensemble by Dutch design demigods Viktor & Rolf, and the dress that Katie Price wore to marry Peter Andre. So what makes one an accomplished piece of couture and the other a hand-wringing frocky horrorshow? The Barbican’s latest exhibition discusses just that in a dazzling show about taste and vulgarity in fashion.
Head back to the psychedelic 1960s and submerse yourself in the fashion, music, film, design and political activism that helped shaped contemporary life. The exhibition centres on the musicians that issued forth from the era as well as great performances gifted to the world by the likes of The Who, Sam Cooke and Jimi Hendrix.
Most Londoners spend more time commuting than they do taking lunch breaks, so it’s no wonder we’re all so obsessed with Transport for London, its systems, its history, its future and the many designs that have become London’s own heraldry. The London Transport Museum celebrates these things all year round, but ‘Designology’ is travel fandom in overdrive.
On September 2, 350 years ago, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about ‘an infinite great fire’ raging in London. Homes burned, people scrambled to save their goods and pigeons ‘hovered about the windows and balconies till they some of them burned their wings’. It’s a compelling tale but, for a museum, a tricky one to tell. How do you stage an exhibition when so many of the artefacts have been incinerated? There are some poignant objects in the Museum of London’s show about the Great Fire: a Bible with singed pages, a heat-buckled key, a half-finished piece of embroidery, apparently salvaged from the blaze. But many of the exhibits are representative of the kind of objects that were around at the time; generic 17th-century wine bottles stand in for the flasks Pepys buried in the garden to keep them from the flames. The interactive bells and whistles include a stylised recreation of Pudding Lane, complete with the artificial scent of bread to evoke the bakery where the fire began. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that all this is compensating for the lack of objects with the gee-whiz factor. It's a show designed with pint-sized visitors in mind; children will enjoy fighting flames on a touch screen and dressing up as firefighters. Adults may find Pepys’ prose gives a more vivid account of the catastrophe.