London 2014: Major Museums

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Stonehenge,Watercolour c.1835 John Constable

(c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Stonehenge,Watercolour c.1835 John Constable
Tales of Terror, Matthew Lewis, published 1808


While London's biggest museums have already been busy throughout 2014, it's in the second half of the year that things get serious. That's when the major institutions - the British Museum, Science Museum, V&A, Natural History Museum, British Library and National Maritime Museum - break out their blockbusters, timed to attract the great burst of visitors London traditionally experiences in this half of the year and also the fact that London's indecisive weather can force tourists and locals to find indoor entertainment. Here Peter Watts explores what's on the line-up.

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British Museum


Tourists this year have a typically eclectic and invigorating mix of the epic and the intelligent, with the British Museum taking the lead. Vikings, the BM's last big exhibition and first at their new, dedicated, Sainsbury's Exhibition Gallery, received a mixed reception from critics but still drew excellent visitor numbers. It is followed by Ming: 50 Years That Changed China (18th September 2014 - 5th January 2015), which will look at the incredible changes that occurred in China between 1400 and 1450 when the Ming dynasty established Beijing as the capital and built the Forbidden City. Contrary to prejudices about a mysterious China cut off from the world, Ming China was well connected and absorbed influences, the fruits of which will be explored with displays featuring some of the most beautiful porcelain, gold, jewellery, furniture, paintings, sculptures and textiles ever made. Many have never been seen outside China.

On a smaller - but no less fascinating - scale comes Witches And Wicked Bodies (September 2014 - January 2015), which examines the changing depictions of witches and witchcraft in art from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. In this time, artists such as Dürer and Goya were drawn to the rich imagery and mythology that had built up around witches from classical times, with artists depicting them as anything from hideous hags to bewitching seductresses.


Natural History Museum


Across London are the trinity of grand museums in South Kensington. The Natural History Museum's annual highlight will be the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year 2014 (from October 2014), featuring dozens of awe-inspiring photographs featuring all aspects of wildlife from around the world and a must-see. The neighbouring Science Museum will also be displaying photographs for Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger Than Fiction (3rd July - 9th November 2014), the first major UK exhibition by Catalan artist Joan Fontcuberta who subtly questions whether photographs can be properly trusted with mischievous and astonishing images of mermaid fossils. 


Science Museum


Photography will also feature in Open For Business (22nd August - 2nd November 2014), a free exhibition that will tell the story of British industry through the lens of photographers, showing everything from foundries and assembly lines to modern research labs.

The Science Museum will also be opening a new permanent gallery called Information Age (from October 2014). This £15.6m gallery will show how communications technologies have transformed our lives over the past 200 years, featuring instruments which detected the first transatlantic telegraph messages in 1858, the BBC's first radio transmitter 2LO, and a BESM-6, the only Russian supercomputer in a museum collection in the West.

Russia will also be the focus of Cosmonauts: Birth Of The Space Age (November 2014-May 2015), the first UK exhibition to look at the remarkable story of Russian space travel through a unique collection of space artefacts, many of which have never before been seen outside Russia. These include spacecraft as well as personal memorabilia belonging to some of the biggest names in spaceflight, such as Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.


Victoria & Albert Museum


Across the road at the V&A, the big exhibition will be something very British. Constable: The Making of a Master (20 September 2014 - 11 January 2015) will examine the work of British landscape artist John Constable, showing how he painted and placing his work alongside some of the old masters of classical landscape. While the exhibition will include many of Constable's great works like The Haywain, it will also feature oil sketches Constable painted outdoors which are widely held to be unequalled at capturing effects of light and atmosphere.

While the Constable exhibition will please the traditionalist, the V&A's contemporary, international audience will enjoy Horst: Photographer of Style (6 September 2014 - 4 January 2015), which will present the definitive retrospective of master photographer Horst P Horst. Horst photographed the fashion houses of 1930s Paris, as well as surreal still lifes, Hollywood stars and reportage from the Middle East. The museum will examine his creative process through archive film footage, original contact sheets, sketchbooks and letters.

The V&A's other exhibition looks like it could be a great deal of fun. Disobedient Objects (26th July 2014 - 1st February 2015) will showcase items made for political protest, including everything from Suffragette teapots, inflatable cobble stones and protest robots, with particular focus on objects from the 1970s to the present day. The V&A will also open their new Rapid Response Collecting gallery on July 5, which promises to showcase recently acquired items of immediate public interest. At the opposite end of the scale to that are the redesigned Europe 1600-1800 Galleries (from December 2014), featuring spectacular examples of textiles and fashion, painting and sculpture, ceramics and glass, furniture and metalwork, prints and books created by Europe's finest artists and craftsmen for figures such as Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great.


British Library


At the British Library, where some of London's most absorbing and intellectually stimulating exhibitions are held, the winter season is led by the potentially magnificent Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination (3 October 2014 - 27 January 2015), which promises to be a comprehensive look at Gothic literature from Horace Walpole to Angela Carter, including artefacts and books involving the likes of Mervyn Peake, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe. The exhibition will explore the enduring influence the genre has had, not just on literature, but also on film, fashion, music and art. The library will also hold a small free exhibition in the Folio Society Gallery on the subject of polar exploration that opens in November 2014 (details yet to be confirmed).


National Maritime Museum


Finally, Greenwich's National Maritime Museum will examine Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude (11 July 2014 - 4 January 2015), looking at the race to determine longitude at sea which gripped Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Valuable rewards were on offer for whoever could crack the puzzle and the exhibition presents the ingenious methods and instruments that would transform seafaring navigation. It will take visitors on a trip from the coffee houses of London to Pacific voyages of Captain Cook, exploring the industry, imagination, relationships and rivalries that shaped one of the great scientific and technical accomplishments in history.

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