Museums and Heritage in review 2012: Captain Scott, Ming Princesses and vampire guns

By Ben Miller | 20 December 2012
A black and white photo of a dog looking at a gramaphone on Arctic snow
The centenary of Captain Scott's famous exhibition resulted in several memorable exhibitions at the start of 2012© Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. Courtesy ATLAS Gallery, London

From scooters, cruisers and helicopters to Vikings, Princesses and gods, it's been another enlightening year in museums and heritage. Here are a few things we covered each month...


a photo of a man smoking a pipe and holding up a test tube
© Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand
If 2012 was a year some museums were approaching with a measure of unease, the centenary of Captain Scott reaching the South Pole was a rousing reminder of bravery and ambition, even if it ended tragically.

The Natural History Museum honoured his exploits with penguin eggs, cocoa tins and a scale model of Scott's hut, and the National Library of Scotland recounted the part baked beans and confectionary played in his pilgrimage.

Echoing the Art Fund Prize-winning success of the British Museum’s concisely brilliant series, the Jewish Museum launched Jewish Britain: A History in 50 Objects.

Holocaust Memorial Day was remembered in a variety of equally poignant ways, including a joyful one in the shape of Yehudit Arnon, an 85-year-old dancer who was forced to stand barefoot in the snow at Auschwitz, but whose determination to dedicate her life to dance won through after she survived.


a photo of an ancient astrological plotting and navigational device
© The Trustees of the British Museum
The British Museum can always be relied upon for astonishing exhibitions. Perhaps one of the most ambitious of the year, Hajj – Journey to the Heart of Islam, included everything from a 9th century Qu'ran to the stories of the spiritual journeys made by modern British Muslims.

Photos caught the eye at two other shows: The Great White South featured a set of carbon prints in Edwardian frames from 1913, giving the inside track on Captain Scott and his men in the remarkable photos taken by Herbert G Ponting.

And the 1980s shifted back into gritty sight in Yorkshire. No Redemption, at the National Coal Mining Museum, brought the riots and strikes of the 1980s to life through the photos of Keith Pattison.

Royal history witnessed some dramatic updates in 2012, but first there was a retrospective courtesy of Cecil Beaton's portraits of the Queen et al at the V&A.

A World War II fighter, the Kawasaki Ki-100-1b, headed to RAF Cosford after eight years in the RAF Museum London, perhaps only dwarfed by a six-tonne Sea King helicopter causing tremors at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall.

Beards, troops, weapons, war wounds, metal bands and a 60-foot Viking longship were only part of the finale to the Jorvik Viking Festival in York, set off in typically fiery fashion.


a computer graphic showing a tall building with the words titanic superimposed across the front
© Courtesy National Museums Northern Ireland
The splendid new nine-gallery Titanic Belfast museum opened in the Northern Irish capital. New venues with a maritime story to tell were all the rage: the Museum of Liverpool was unveiled as an enormous contemporary building with a sprawling history to tell.

Legendary photographer Terry O’Neill showcased photos of the rock and roll stars he was friends with. The National Museum of Scotland, meanwhile, looked at the Egyptian art of death in Fascinating Mummies.

In openings, local Cumbrian gods from Roman times were revisited at the new Housesteads Roman Fort and Museum in Northumbria, and the first dirt was dug for a £4 million “one-stop shop” telling the history of Derbyshire.

RAF Cosford received an amazing arrival again: a 38-metre aircraft, the Nimrod R.1 XC249, has a wing span of 35 metres, although it’s unlikely to reach its top speed of 416 mph again anytime soon.


a photo of a man holding a brick
© The Museum of London
A 16th century listed house in Devon, a thatched rural bolthole in Essex and an Italianate mansion set in a 40-acre walled park in Northumberland were among nearly 100 abandoned properties seeking new owners under a list drawn up by SAVE, the heritage group armed with a list of British heritage sites they want to save.

Coventry Transport Museum might save one of them. The city’s Old Grammar School – once an infirmary – was at the centre of plans to make their enormous collection an "internationally significant" attraction with the £4.9 million Lottery windfall they went after.

Sixteen Scottish sites shared £4 million, and the "bright and welcoming" Kent History and Library Centre was opened by a gaggle of literary impersonators.

The Museum of London won the Guinness Book of Records gong for the largest archaeological collection in the world, and Antiques Roadshow regular Philip Mould found a remarkable portrait – the wonderfully-named Chevalier D’Eon, the Patron Saint of Transvestites, the sitter in a portrait thought to be the earliest painting of a transvestite.

David Starkey’s exhibition, Royal River, proved an excellent survey of the Thames. HMS Belfast, reopened with a weekend of celebrations after a six-month closure.

In another compelling glimpse into military history, the IWM North opened an exhibition of photographs to mark the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict.


a photograph of a manuscript
© The British Library
A couple of literary displays intrigued this month. The British Library had transcripts from the likes of Tolkien, Bronte, Hughes and Plath in the wonderful Wastelands to Wonderlands, while the National Army Museum had scrawls of a more chilling kind on show in schoolbook depictions of Kalashnikovs, part of a series of objects from the Soviet conflict of 1980s Afghanistan.

2012 was seaside grump Mr Punch’s 350th birthday, embraced by a nostalgic programme called The Big Grin. Worthing Museum kicked things off, although puppet “professors” from across the world converged on the less coastal surroundings of Covent Garden.

The Fitzwilliam searched for immortality in new show Tomb Treasures of Han China. And elsewhere in Cambridge, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology reopened at Cambridge University – mouse-nibbled corpses, Maori trumpets and all.

Non-locals might not have thought of Scarborough as the dinosaur heartland of Britain, but two-foot long megalosaurus footprints stomped across the Rotunda Museum in the first exhibition to show all the fossil bones found in the region together.


a photo of a prone figure clothed in silver and gold
© Courtesy Colchester and Ipswich Museums
Six hundred years ago, Ming Princesses wore clothes based around gold cicadas sitting on jade leaves. That was just one of the revelations to arise from Treasures of China, a 4,500-year journey at Colchester Castle.

The £3.4 million National Centre for Civil War will be built in Nottinghamshire, and the medieval Haverfordwest home of a Tudor trader was rebuilt at St Fagans in Cardiff.

Another institution, the public library in Worcester, marked its first move in 116 years with a Fourth Plinth-style revolving central display at the Museum and Art Gallery it left behind, featuring men in shorts, skulls in jars and digital sculpture.


a photo of a man holding a case with a pistol in it
© Royal Armouries
A vampire kit and gun in Leeds, masks from Benin in London, a V-2 rocket in Brompton and a byzantine bowl in Edinburgh - "the single most important acquisition that National Museums Scotland has made in many decades" - all surfaced in a quirky month of new arrivals.

Down in Chichester, the £7 million Novium centre attested to 500,000 years of history. "There are too many to mention," said Catherine Coleman, the Learning and Participation Officer, when pushed for her highlights.

You’d have been hard-pressed to pick a favourite from the Festival of British Archaeology, which returned with an extraordinary range of events nationwide.

Major exhibitions included glittering Anglo-Saxon gems at the Potteries Museum, the imaginatively-curated Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Library and the Curious Case at the Great North Museum, which boasted a hunter’s knife from Borneo.


a photo of Lord Coe and Dame Kelly Holmes holding a box of medals
The Cultural Olympiad began to generate exhibitions at a sprinter’s pace. Highlights included Northern Ireland's Sporting Triumphs in Belfast, stories of the world from Uruguay to Zimbabwe in Edinburgh, shiny Modern Medals at Glasgow’s Hunterian and 200 years of urban sport in Bristol.

Rugby Art Gallery revisited the Olympians of 1948 in a particularly cheering show. An Essex secretary who won 100 metres silver and a high jumper who still plays professional golf today were among the athletes honoured.

Sherlock Holmes had his statue reinstated at Arthur Conan Doyle’s Edinburgh birthplace and in acquisitions, an exquisite harp ordered by a fashionable Parisian more than 200 years ago was also bought by the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.

"I haven't enough superlatives to describe this site,"
concluded John Gator, a Time Team expert on a secret dig at a Roman fort on the north Norfolk coast.

At Cheshire’s Anson Engine Museum, an engineer from the Saitama plant of Honda persuaded staff  to organise a rare midweek opening. Sei Watanabe was said to have been “extremely grateful” to have visited a 129-year-old engine which is the only example in the world of the Atkinson-cycle make.


a photograph of a group of men playing dominoes in a smoky pub
© Courtesy Bolton Museum/Mass Observation Archive
You could pretty much smell the tobacco and Brylcreem in a new display revealing the findings of Mass Observation Worktown at Bolton Museum.

What they might have made of the punk era, revisited in a series of "eyeball pleasers" at the Hayward Gallery, was unclear. London also hosted Open House, the annual weekend at which hallowed premises are opened to the public, ranging from temples based on Hindu scriptures to 40-storey office blocks.

A much-loved place, the Women’s Library, remained open thanks to a new home at the London School of Economics. And one of the country’s favourite authors, Roald Dahl, was honoured with a day dedicated to his legacy.

Black History Month had a particular air of celebration on the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. A Muhammad Ali film, Bangladesh I Love You, and an evening of dance-based debauchery in Sussex (titled Rum ‘n’ Bass) also caused significant jollity.

Perhaps the finest exhibition of the month was at the National Museum of Scotland, where An Enlightened Empress highlighted the cultural acquisitions of the imperious Catherine the Great during the 18th century.


a realistic painting of a bloodhound wearing a Sherlock Holmes style deerstalker hat and smoking a pipe
© Paul Cliff
“A national treasure of global importance” – no, Boris Johnson wasn’t talking about himself, but the British Postal Museum, which received important initial Lottery funding of £250,000 ahead of an application for £4 million in 2013 to expand and move to a modern new home.

The Museum of Carpet had a new home in Kidderminster, and ambitious plans were also being outlined in Norwich, where a screen heritage centre could be created.

A “mothballed” RAF base in Bicester could be turned into a heritage attraction dotted with listed buildings and Scheduled Monuments, and Remembrance Day was marked across the country, including a poppy field at the IWM crafted by the public.

Exhibitions recounted the history of dogs in Britain, political satire from more than 200 years ago, a rural history taking in horses, beasts, sheep, pigs and poultry and the mere first 50 feet of a 120-foot scroll created by Jack Kerouac.

Gristly fare at the Museum of London, where Doctors, Dissection and Ressurection Men weaved an anatomical line between gurning wax heads and amputation saws once owned by the charmingly titled George “Graveyard” Walker.

Birmingham’s newest gallery celebrated the history of the city and its people with a style only eclipsed by the glitz of Hollywood Costume at the V&A, where the wardrobes came from Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin, among others.


a photo of an old suitcase with a prosthetic arm poking out of it
© The Museum of Curiosity
Joe Hesketh’s A Pendle Investigation marked the 400th anniversary of the infamous Pendle WitchTrials in a month of unusual exhibitions. There were eyeballs and wolf skulls at the new Museum of Curiosity, a "spectacular" collection of scooters at Coventry Transport Museum and insights into the man who might have been the true force behind Handel's Messiah at the London museum devoted to the man.

Two exhibitions – Brown Sugar on Main Street and Rocking the Art World – marked the return of the Rolling Stones. A fellow 'lyricist', Hedd Wyn, will have his former Snowdonia home turned into a museum and heritage centre in honour of the First World War poet.

Baroque Cabinets travelled from across the world to Secret Splendour at the Holburne in Bath. Stockport honoured The Cockleshell Heroes, New Art Exchange enjoyed 50 years of Jamaican Independence, and A Study in Scarlet brought out a rare first edition of the first book starring Sherlock Holmes, standing as the star exhibit in his Portsmouth “birthplace”.

At the Royal Air Force Conservation Centre, a week-long opening allowed aviation fans to get behind the scenes and two other feats of engineering won prestigious awards.


a photo of archaeological finds inlcuding jewellery and torques
© Portable Antiquities Scheme
The Portable Antiquities Scheme’s annual report was caked in muddy excitement as usual. Iron Age helmets, Roman coins and Viking goodies were among the highlights.

At the Bodleian Library, the scriptures of Love and Devotion were “timeless epics, tales and romances”. Coinciding with the latest Hobbit release, a set of swords from the big screen version went on display at the Royal Armouries.

The RAF Museum announced plans to spend a £64,000 grant on digitising 300,000 First World War personnel records, telling the lesser-known story of The First World War in the Air.

With another eye on the centenary of World War I in 2014, the Guards Museum launched a public appeal to create a memorial garden near Buckingham Palace, made with soil from the battlefields of Flanders. They hope to raise £600,000.

HMS Caroline is a survivor of the WW1 Battle of Jutland. The ship has been saved by the “fund of last resort” that is the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which gave £1 million to the C-class light cruiser.

Nostalgia reigned at Mansfield Museum, where On the Buses, Dominoes, Z-Cars and the equine version of Monopoly all pitched in to a line-up of forgotten classics of board games past.

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