A couple of weeks ago I spoke at a conference at the BritishMuseum entitled: ‘Engaging the Artist’s Voice: Museums, galleries and artists working in collaboration’. I was invited because we have a major loan from BritishMuseum within our building at the moment – a wonderful Roman bronze depicting Hercules, which I brought in.
The idea for the loan came out of a meeting at Turner Contemporary early last year, which was organised by Arts Council England and the BritishMuseum. The meeting was to explore how the relationships between arts organisations in the South East region and the BritishMuseum might be developed in the future. Those present were Victoria Pomery – Director of Turner Contemporary, Michael Stanley – Director of Modern Art Oxford, John Orna-Ornstein, Head of National Programmes at the BritishMuseum, and myself. The group identified three strands for development; loans, curatorial exchange, and how new contemporary art galleries could be enabled to solicit loans more easily from smaller museums through an association with the BritishMuseum.
My career began at the Department of Prints & Drawings at the BritishMuseum fifteen years ago, and so I have a working knowledge of the loan process, and it was not a great mystery to me. Since being a curator at the Pavilion I had been playing around with the idea of bringing a piece of ancient classical sculpture to Bexhill and placing it in the public areas of our building, outside of the context of a specific exhibition, and as a surprising experience for our visitors. This appeared to be the perfect moment to try and make this happen, as a statement about the development of the relationships that we had discussed at Margate, and also, as we were in the run-up to the Olympics, an opportunity to link the loan to this spectacular event.
I started looking at objects on the BM collections database and identified a list of possibilities. None of these artifacts were available to travel, for various reasons. Some were already promised for other exhibitions, others could not travel for conservation reasons, and some did not have existing crates, which can prove to be a major expense. Eventually Ian Jenkins, Curator within The Department of Greece and Rome, became involved in the discussion and he suggested the Roman bronze figure of Hercules that is now with us; Herakles at the Tree of the Hesperides. The bronze, excavated at Byblos in Lebanon in the first century AD, depicts Hercules holding the golden apples which represent his twelve labours, and the origin of the modern Olympic Games. It was part of a BritishMuseum international touring exhibition that has just returned from Mexico City, and comes almost directly to Bexhill.
Hercules is an impressive and sexy presence in our building, and our visitors really appreciate him. We have a large volume of more mature people coming into the Pavilion at this time of year. They arrive on coach tours of the SouthCoast and stop to explore the building, and for a cup of tea. The most gratifying thing for me is to see these people studying Hercules on their way to the café, discussing the finer points of his physique, and enjoying the occasional snigger. There have been over 35,000 visitors to our building since we opened the Olympics season a few weeks ago, and a large proportion of these would have encountered Hercules. I think that that is true cultural democracy at work.
The Art Fund has supported the loan of Hercules in two ways. It is part of The British Museum’s Spotlight Loans initiative, which is supported by Art Fund, and because of this the museum has covered the costs of the practical delivery of the loan, including transport and administration. The Pavilion was also very lucky to receive a grant of £10,000 from the British Museum Trust to deliver the wider season of contemporary exhibitions and events that we have curated for the Olympics season, including a dynamic education, learning and participation programme. This pot of money also came indirectly from Art Fund as it is derived from the BritishMuseum winning the Art Fund Prize for Museums and Galleries in 2011.
David Rhodes is a curator at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex. David has a career working behind the scenes at art galleries that spans fifteen years and includes time at the BritishMuseum.