The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship

Brueghel; Defining a Dynasty

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Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.

Today we see Freya Monk-McGowan, trainee with the Collections Management section.

Hello all! My name is Freya and I’m one of the newest trainees within Norfolk Museum Services, I am also a new arrival to Norfolk itself, so have been taking my time settling in and getting to know my new surroundings. My apologies for not writing sooner, but I must admit that my mind has been exploding and imploding from the utter amazement of the position I find myself in, and the exciting things I get to do within this traineeship. As this is my first blog post, I will give a short introduction to myself and how I came to be here, as well as one of my most recent achievements within the service.

I graduated in 2015 from Brighton University with a History, Literature and Culture BA Hons, after which I moved home and found myself managing a cinema for just under a year. Although an exciting and educational experience, I realised that my passion for history and culture was not being completely fulfilled, so I spent a while sending out a whole host of applications, but having only studied to an undergraduate level, I was not qualified for most museum jobs. So began my applications for internships and traineeships, I was lucky enough to get onto Culture &’s SOCL traineeship (Strengthening Our Common Life), based here at Norfolk Museum Service, and the rest (as they say) ‘is history.’

Since then, my traineeship has been a bit of a whirlwind, within a few days I was being let loose on objects hundreds of years old, and being involved in training sessions, with my fellow trainees, about aspects of the museum service that I had frankly given no consideration before. (I must clarify that my term ‘let loose’ here refers only to my excitement, there was of course training before I was allowed to handle any objects.) So far, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in training sessions on Community Engagement, Improving Access to Museums, Marketing, Working with Display Teams, and a whole host more!

By far however, one of the most exciting (and nerve-racking) things that I have been asked to do (apart from being asked to go on the radio later this year, updates will follow), was being asked to courier an object that was going out on loan. As seems to be the case for me currently, it was serendipitous and a complete surprise – due to calendar clashes and a few lucky (for me) cross-overs, I was asked in the third week of January to do a courier trip to the Holburne Museum in Bath. Although having visited Bath when I was younger, I had not much recollection of the place, and was excited to go. My excitement grew evermore as I was told exactly what object I would be taking.

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Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Rent Collectors 1618 (also known as The Payment of the Tithes, Village Lawyer, and Paying the Tax – The Tax Collector).

When this was confirmed my excitement could barely be contained. As well as the nerves/doubts of the dreaded ‘what if.’ However, my nerves being set aside, I began planning for the trip by getting a foundational knowledge of the procedures of loaning to another museum, the different job roles that are necessary, and getting my head around the scale of work involved when putting on an exhibition that is made up of mainly of borrowed works.

The Holburne Museum in Bath is bringing together a range of paintings from across the UK, for the first time, in order to display the dynasty of the Brueghel family. This will give the viewer an ability to see the similarities between the artists, yes, but also their differences. The ways in which they were influenced, but by no means the way they ‘copied’ on from one another (- a critique of the family that has been repeated over the centuries). The exhibition itself is ambitious and exciting, and definitely one worth visiting.

The next part of my preparation involved actually coming face-to-paint with this piece (-yay!). Myself and a colleague (Fiona Ford, registrar) visited the piece in store, in order to review the condition check before packing. This is done so that we can keep an eye on the condition of the painting before and after transit to Bath, before and after the exhibition, and before and after it has gone on loan and been returned. It was during this condition check that I really got the chance to indulge in the piece. This painting really does demand attention – it requires the viewer to attend for a lengthy period of time, and will not let you leave easily. I found myself (four hours later) still finding aspects of it that I had not thought of before, and if you will, dear reader, let me share those with you.

(I hasten to add that although I am an art lover, I have not studied art, in the practical sense, academically. I say this in order to allow myself room for error, and to allow others who are similar (-having not studied art), to engage, agree/disagree with me on my findings.)

As with most pieces of art, this painting asks more questions than it answers. And with its different names, the meaning behind it is enigmatic.

If, for example, we take the name of this piece as ‘The Rent Collector’ we are positioned to assume that the man far right, with his jauntily placed black hat and thoughtful expression, is there in an official capacity. He is there merely to collect these poor wretches ever-so-dear ‘rent’. As we can see, all are attempting to pay with everything that is not money: a chicken, a basket of eggs, a bunch of grapes. This therefore makes the painting both dark and harrowing – these people that have no money for rent, are now handing over their precious food stuffs, to leave (we assume) to hunger, and a life not made much better by this moment.

If, however, we take a different name for this piece, and instead assume that it is titled ‘Village Lawyer,’ the man in the black hat becomes less of a dark presence within the piece, and instead is a welcome relief to those clutching their food within.

This title encourages us to focus on this encounter closer:

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The man seen pointing and whispering into Black Hat’s ear, we can assume is a peasant, with his clothes filled with patches, and his tanned skin. The expression, and meaning, of ‘Black Hat,’ who I assume to be the Village Lawyer in this scene, changes with the title. Instead of a discerning, prudent and imposing presence, he becomes a wily, (seemingly) intelligent lawyer attempting to work through tons of paperwork in what I can only assume to be a helpful way. The total scene shifts and my focus moves from ‘Black Hat’ (or lawyer), to the man sitting slightly left of centre, quietly working through papers.

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This man now becomes the official figure, there to record the present scene, but who does not seem a helpful or welcome presence by his fellow characters. I presume this from the wide berth given to him, the clear sight-line we are afforded to stare at him, and also the emotions of the surrounding figures. If we look closely (and use a wild leap of imagination) we can see that those nearest to this gentlemen hold expressions of:

Sadness

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Anger

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And in other cases, seem to hide altogether:

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Now, that is not to say that all the rest of the people in the scene look wildly happy to be there, but if we focus again on the man talking to ‘Black-Hat’ (-I like the name, so will continue using it):

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Although it does feel that there is desperation in his face, I can see, dare I say it, some excitement there. Maybe at the possibility of paying less, getting off, or some of other positive possibility from speaking to ‘Black-Hat.’

Of course all of these opinions and assumptions are my own, and you are welcome to agree or disagree depending on yours. I cannot help but feel that this is exactly what we are encouraged to do by this painting, and whether you are a lover of art, or not, I believe this painting does encourage contemplation.

Even if this is not the case for every viewer, the painting (/painter) offers us another opportunity – of reveling in his ability to capture the likeness of both people and inanimate objects. I must admit that I got quite obsessed at the smallest parts of this piece. For example:

This window, and its peeling panes.

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This perfectly painted knee.

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And the numerous images of papers strewn all over the floor, piled high over wardrobes, and even stuck into window panes.

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This painting, encourages the novice and the experienced viewer to search within, and then again, and then again (a similarity that is shared throughout the dynasty).

My advice for those visiting the Holburne to see this exhibition, take nothing with you but time.

I feel I have gone off topic (only slightly) with my musings of the painting itself. Back to the actual trip.

After agreeing with the condition check, getting all the relevant paperwork (loan agreement, my travel documents, the condition check, etc) in order, picking up some conservation tools (to check light levels, humidity and temperature), and packing my things, I was ready to go. The next day, the painting and I, were picked up from Norwich castle by professional art movers, and were safely packed away for the drive to Bath (stopping at Cambridge along the way to pick up another piece). Arriving at the Holburne that evening, we met with one of the curators of the exhibition and the director of the museum. We discussed the movements of the crates, and began. We unloaded the van (I say we, I did literally no heavy lifting), and moved the crates upstairs to be safely stored away for the evening, and the whole next day. As this piece was painted on a wooden panel it needed a ‘rest day’ to acclimatise to its new temperature, and humidity. This gave me the opportunity to explore Bath for a day, and visit a total of 5 museums/art galleries, which I would be happy to write on although possibly not in this piece.

After its rest day, I arrived again at the Holburne to see it’s unwrapping, and its installation – this really was the exciting bit. The exhibition space is well designed and engaging, with muted colours on the walls that highlight the rich colours found within the Brueghel’s themselves.

After taking it out of its case, and double checking the eye-line and its straightness, the freelance art technicians fixed it to the wall, and we all (6-7 of us), stood back to admire this piece once again.

I really cannot explain how exhilarating it was to be involved in this piece being put on show within such a fantastic museum, nor such an exciting show. I couldn’t help but imagine the hundreds (and hopefully thousands) of people who stand where I was then, contemplating the same piece and having an infinite amount of different thoughts when staring at it.

I really do count myself lucky to have been involved in such a moment, for that I am extremely grateful, to Norfolk Museum Services Teaching Museum, to Culture &, and to the Holburne itself. Good luck, and I hope this exhibition brings in all the attention it deserves.

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