I decided to try a second visit the to the Nottingham Contemporary last weekend, after reading good things about their children’s activities. I invited one of my friends from Derby Museums along, who also has a son slightly younger than M as another point of view.
The first time I visited I had more of a general look round, taking in the architecture (which is nice, with great links to the Nottingham lace making industry), the cafe and the shop. The shop has got some lovely things in it, but seemed to tend towards the pricier end of the spectrum for what could be sourced far more reasonably elsewhere.
This second time, my first with son, was a chance to see things from a more in-depth point-of-view.
We visited the activity for children first, located on the second floor. It was billed as ‘matchbox art’. Essentially creating larger pictures into many smaller ones, by cutting them up and sticking them onto the sides of the box. It has lots of creative possibilities, creating puzzles or replacing parts of the picture with something else, for example. Materials were laid out and we were directed to a seat to make a start.
After about 5 minutes, the activity supervisor came rushing up and said that we were using the wrong materials Matchboxes? Magazine pictures? Glue or scissors? Between welcoming other families she explained over a further 5 minutes that the activity has a limited budget, and that the matchboxes we could use were the ones with paper wrapped around them, not sticking to the boxes directly like we had begun to. Not a problem, but there was nothing explaining this and plastic bags of boxes left open on the table, giving the distinct impression to help yourself. It was a real shame, as the kids had started to explore the possibilities of decorating the insides of the box, creating art surprises, and so forth. Plus being interrupted midway was a distraction it itself. We recovered but for me the activity lost a bit of sparkle, mainly because when you took away the paper wrappings you were left with something that looked pretty deflated, which was a shame. When we walked around the exhibition we also realised that there was a great link to some of the artwork on show. This wasn’t made clear at the time, and I feel that an opportunity was missed here.
We visited the exhibition space next. The show was billed as ‘Monuments should not be trusted’, bringing
“together over 30 leading artists and groups from the “golden years” of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – the period between the early 1960s and the mid 1980s.
Over 100 artworks and artifacts illuminate the key contradictions of this single party state – built after WWII on socialist principles, yet immersed in “Utopian consumerism.”
There was a vast range of artworks, over 100, spread across 3 spaces, and broadly grouped into themes of Public Space and the Presence of Tito, Socialism and Class Difference, Comradess Superwoman, and Utopian Consumerism and Subcultures. The mix of media was good, with sculpture, photography, film, paint and historical objects all included.
Unfortunately I found the gallery experience itself unsatisfying. Considering the venue included a family activity on the day, there was nothing outside the Comradess Superwoman gallery indicating that some of the content might be unsuitable for younger visitors or cause offence. Images included topless women in quite suggestive poses and could be considered pornographic, albeit on the softer side.
My son and I are used to being quite free in a gallery space. This exhibition was of contemporary works, which was probably less accessible, however certain aspects, such as a large monolithic sculpture in the corner that my son and I were placing peek-a-boo around the side of was not cordoned off in any way. Despite this we were asked by one of the assistants to ‘step away and not touch’. Several times the assistants approached us to point out that the display cases were tall, narrow and with extremely spindly legs, and seemed to be at risk of falling over. Not great with younger children around. Some of the head-sets for the film were were deafeningly loud when put on, with no concern given to the visitor’s hearing.
I have always tried to teach my son to be respectful and considerate towards others, however we are very used to being playful in a museum space, and as such with consideration given for the needs of visitors of all ages. I really didn’t feel this was the case with the Nottingham Contemporary exhibition. The staff spent a long time hovering nearby and after the third of fourth reminder about what to do (or not) I decided to give it up and head downstairs for a drink.
The cafe had a buzz to it, but was not decidedly busy. We ordered a coffee, a peppermint tea and my son chose a piece of cake from the display. After waiting over 10 minutes for 2 drinks to be delivered (the server behind the counter seemed to be rather vague about his work) we discovered that the cake has been left in the air for so longer as to render it inedible. Unfortunately this fact has been disguised by a thick layer of icing. I returned what was left of the cafe to the counter and waited for another 5 minutes to ask for the bill, ignored by the 3 members of staff who were working there at the time.
All in all, I wasn’t that impressed. The kids activity was great, but the links with the exhibition were not obvious. if you visited first as we did there was nothing describing the inspiration. The gallery experience was mediocre, with little signage or allowances made to adapt for children of families. Although the staff were not unfriendly in their approaches, continuous intervention does begin to become tedious and off-putting, You have to ask yourself could a better job not have been done in the space set up? At least put up some signs for crying out load.
The cafe, don’t bother. There are umpteen better places for coffee and food outside the gallery doors.
I think I will go again, but certainly not with child in tow and definitely not without checking what the exhibition is by calling in advance.