After the traditional quick photos with the sculptures outside the building which included a new wobbly one. We entered into a bright area with the welcome zone ahead of us, a new shop to our right and the new café to the left. We headed left, we were very hungry and needed some sustenance to help us around the exhibits. The long café had two counters, one near the front serving snacks and the other towards the rear serving hot food. We headed to the hot food counter and took a look at the menu. The old café that was on the top floor has been relocated. It was helpful to now have it here on the ground floor and the size was a change for the better. Sadly though, the increase in floor space also seems to have resulted in an increase in prices and a reduction in drinks sizes. I have a pet hate with café's that think a 200ml glass bottle is fine to go with a meal and charge accordingly. On the plus side, they serve wine and beer so its not all bad. The food was also very good quality and I did see jugs of water availible.
After our food, which was very tasty, we headed to the welcome zone. My first impression was that it was a change for the better, it seemed more light, airy, modern and welcoming. We were kindly handed maps from a member of staff that depicted the 4 main areas that we were set to discover.
That discovery, even in such a public place, is at some level individual to yourself and what you choose to look at. To review every exhibit in close detail would take quite some time, so although some things aren't my cup of tea or maybe even the brew of choice for my friends, it's still definitely worth a visit to see for yourself. So I'll not spoil the ins and outs of what we saw too much. However I'll quickly try and sum up what I thought were the best and the worst aspects of the experience.
In the history zone:
I thought that it was great to see that recent history being introduced. The troubles section is nice to see in a way. A positive sign that those times are hopefully just a part of history with a hangover. It was quite a simplistic display and although informative, it didn't really seem that accessible. Also, it probably wouldn't hurt to focus on some good news stories, of achievements in the face of adversity. It's not like life stopped during the latter half of the last century.
The History Interactive Area was fun and the kids in there seemed to be having a great time. On snaffling a computer terminal and viewing the list of videos and images that were available to watch. I tried to find something about Irish League Football. The only football related video I could find was some footage from Windsor Park of a Northern Ireland international – I'm not sure who picked the videos, but whoever did must have thought a lot about Motor Sports and Rugby. I'm sure a lot of other sports are feeling slightly neglected too. The choice and depth of information available regarding the past is maybe something that can be expanded and developed?
I really liked the other history sections. There was one exhibit in-particular which thought was great. It was within the Plantation to Power-sharing area and had touch buttons which lit up towns on a map showing the size of towns over time and allowing you to see stage by stage the increase in population of towns and city all across the island. In another room I also learnt that Larne aka Ulfreksfjord has a Viking heritage. Other than that the general theme was that lots of people had a habit of drowning. Swimming instructors must have been a rare commodity that were over looked in days of yore.
Further into the history zone can be found what is arguably the star exhibit. The 2500+ year old mummified remains of Takabuti. Now complete with a video and model of the resident ancient Egyptian lady's head. Sadly the intrigue and allure of this exhibit that could be used as a focal point of the entire museum is still understated and somewhat stuck away and I agree with the points expressed by Alan in Belfast who raised the a good question; why wasn't the film showing in an adjoining room with seating? On entrance to the room, the view of the glass box encasing the mummy is obscured by a large informational sign. The information and other artefacts displayed, as with most of the museum, are better presented in comparison to the old Ulster Museum but in this section compared to the likes of the Armagh Planetarium or W5 there still seems a discrepancy. The ability to wow and draw people to an exhibit isn't quite the same in this section, something that does seem to have been addressed a little better in other areas. It seems largely due to the fact there is still so much in such a small space. The exhibits were very much more interactive than the old though and much more like the standards set by other large museums elsewhere in Europe. A good change even if I might think there is still room to improve.
In the Nature zone:
This section was a huge improvement on the old. The displays and information areas were much more interactive and in the fossil section the screen showing videos of prehistoric era's was well worth a watch. From learning of the history of the land we walk on and the changes that brought about the landscape we know well today, to the animals that inhabit that land. An area helpful to remind people that we, as humans, are a recent introduction to the mix Northern Ireland and the world has been subject to many guises. Some of those guises are beautifully brought to life within these exhibits.The Nature Interactive area seemed popular, located in the area where the café used to be, it had some comfy seats and like the other interactive areas, lots of books and other resources, plenty of hands on objects too.
The other highlights for me were the viewing area of the bird feeders and botanic gardens. With binoculars freely available to use and seats to rest your tired legs on it was a nice break. The other great area for me was the Earth's treasures. Set in a dark room are an array of spotlighted geological samples from of various crystals, gemstones and other pretty rocks. Some truly brilliant colours and shiny things that anyone with magpie like tendencies can get on-board with.
In the Art Zone:
First the positive... there is an Art Interactive Area and it has a brilliant view out over Belfast and of the cave hill, I managed to find an open window and took a couple of snaps. Also for the seemingly few arty fans of Sean Scully's work, you might have a field day.
Now the negative... 1 artist, 1 theme and more floor space than I believe is really warranted, dedicated to this egotistical indulgence of simplistic abstract art, at least when put in relation to the importance of those exhibits obviously not on display at its expense.
Don't get me wrong, a few pieces might have been interesting, but several huge rooms that contained only one form of expression, one basic style. Well, it was all too much of too little. We tried to get why so much of it was here - we looked at the paintings, we looked at their names, we looked at the painting sized photos of him painting, we watched the giant darkroom projection of a video where we got to see a life-size Scully paint and hold a cat and avoid talking about his painting. We looked at the painting's paint strokes and etchings up close, we looked at them far away and tried to envisage the concept behind the piece's names. We're not adverse to abstract art, but at some stage it reaches the point of the pointless and a feeling of 'ah now you're pushing it'. I felt that we might as well be cloud spotting and describing what we each see... except making such visual representations with simple blocks and stripes is like trying to see something in the pattern of a Metro bus seat. If its meant to portray an emotion or feeling other than confusion, every piece of the artwork we looked closely at for sure missed its point with us. So for me this really was just one step away from declaring a window as art. Because I can't see what people see in the work, to try and give some sort of balanced view, here are a few opinions of more art knowledgeable individuals who might convince you of a view contrary to my own:
You can probably tell that I'm not a fan of Sean Scully's work, or at least what I've seen so far. This blog is a two way medium, so if you disagree with me, please do let me know. Maybe a bit of education might spark an insight to his work which I was over looking. Thankfully, at least to me, 'Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed: The Imagery of Sean Scully' is due to give way to art that from my perspective would be more thought provoking, on the 20th February.
On the way out we called in at the gift shop and bought some funky drinks cups with in built swirly straws like you used to get as kids. The refurbished Museum is a huge improvement but for our visit yesterday it seems there is still a fair bit of room for improvement and soon that room will be available... at least in the art department. Except for the disappointment of the art section we had a nice time and learnt lots. I for one will most certainly be back again for another visit before long.