by Menaka Raman
I love museums. Art museums. World War II museums. Childhood Museums. Gardening Museums. If there’s a museum in a place I’m visiting, I’ll be standing in queue for a ticket. I think my fascination for them stems from one of my favourite books of all time: ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’ by E. L. Konigsburg. In the book, Claudia and Jamie Kincaid run away from home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where they settle down, outwitting staff, security, and other patrons. The book captivated my imagination as a child, and I suppose there’s always been a part of my brain that’s wondered ‘Would I be able to get away with a Claudia here?’ as I traipsed around various museums as an adult.
If you’ve been nourishing your museum love with virtual museum tours thanks to the pandemic, then I urge you to listen to The Ashmolean Museum’s podcast. Each episode of Museum Secrets is short — 10 minutes or so — and in these few minutes, curators share wonderful stories from life in a museum, with humour and wit.
One of my favourite episodes is from early on in Series 1 and is called Indecent Sculptures for Decent Museums where listeners are invited into Gallery 14 of The Ashmolean, which houses casts — plaster of Paris copies of celebrated Greek and Roman sculptures.
Jim Harris, a teaching Curator at the Museum shares the story of how he received a text message from a venerable art historian asking him to share a photograph of the famous Laocoön sculptures cast, particularly the crotch area. From here we take a whistle-stop tour of the Cast Galleries of The Ashmolean, The Royal Academy of Art, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and are asked not to avert our gazes from the male genitalia on display, or in some cases, not on display. Harris reveals how some casts have removable male appendages or strategic cover-ups in the form of foliage depending on the sensibilities of the viewing public of the time the cast was displayed.The V&A’s cast of David for example has a fig leaf appendage!
Through the 10 minute episode, I learned that casts are crucial to not only allowing people to view great works of sculpture that they would not be able to otherwise due to ‘distance or destruction’ but also reveal the tastes of the people who commissioned them and the historical moment they were introduced to wider society.
So, if you’re missing museum visits like I am and are in the mood for a peek inside ‘members only’ rooms, then do listen to this episode and the others in The Ashmolean Museum podcast.