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Art and History in Portsmouth
Portsmouth City Museum and Records Office (Portsmouth)
Member Name: frangliz
Portsmouth City Museum and Records Office (Portsmouth)
Advantages: Completely free of charge; strong on local history
Disadvantages: Not good for the disabled
Having said in my recent review of the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester that I did not think I could see a work of art by a major artist in Portsmouth, it is now time to set the record straight. The Portsmouth City Museum and Records Office is barely a mile from where I live, so I decided one Sunday morning to see what sort of culture there was right on my doorstep. To my surprise, I discovered a small sculpture by Barbara Hepworth as well as a work by Victor Pasmore. I therefore stand corrected.
An imposing red brick building, the museum is not purpose built but a former barracks. It is situated on Museum Road, very close to the university as well as Portsmouth Grammar School, and only about five minutes' walk from Gunwharf Quays. There is an area of lawn with one or two seats in front of the entrance. On entering you find a reception desk in front of you, but admission is absolutely free, even for the temporary exhibitions.
The intention is that you turn to your right and walk through the shop area; you won't miss anything through the door you see on the left, as you will come back and finish your tour of the museum there. The room on the right on the ground floor is set aside for special exhibitions, and I was indeed lucky to make my visit on the final day of The Magic of Masks and Puppets display. I had heard about this and thought it was a children's exhibition, but I was charmed by what I saw. The puppets in particular were gorgeous, whether from India, Japan, Bali or from British touring puppet companies. The Russian ones were so big that it's hard to imagine they could easily be moved around. One or two of the exhibits had been specially made for BBC television shows, and I also saw Baby Dawn from the film 'Trainspotting'. I don't know if this is a touring exhibition, but if you see it advertised at a museum near you, I would recommend a visit.
Emerging from this room, you are then faced with a lot of stairs to climb. This is unfortunately not a place for disabled people, as there is no lift. Having reached the first floor I found that the records office was to my left and was just about to turn right when an attendant greeted me and recommended the display on the second floor. So I climbed another flight of stairs and found the effort to be worth my while. The sight that greeted my eyes was an eclectic collection of traditional furniture, contemporary works of art and older pieces of porcelain. Reading the notices, it became apparent that to qualify for display in this collection, the work of art had to be either made in Portsmouth, made using processes that involved changes in temperature, or fitting the category 'under and over'. (I didn't actually find a definition for the last of the three.)
I was surprised to find here a few sizeable canvases painted by artists who had been lecturers at Portsmouth Polytechnic (now Portsmouth University), and I actually recognised the names of one or two of them, having attended as a student for a year many moons ago. It was here too that I found the small but delightful 'Figure in a Landscape' by Barbara Hepworth. Interspersed with these modern works were a grandfather clock, one or two contemporary chairs, a porcelain water fountain and various other treasures. A strange mixture, yet somehow I found it refreshing, and I certainly hadn't expected to find anything of this nature in my local museum.
I went back down to the first floor where the rooms are devoted to the history of Portsmouth and Southsea. There are reconstructions of rooms of houses from yesteryear, the oldest one being a seventeenth-century bedroom complete with sound effects of a mother and father breathing heavily but not quite snoring. There are illustrations of Victoria Park and Southsea seafront that each take up almost the whole of one wall, a reconstruction of a booth in Verrechia's ice-cream parlour, and an area given over to Portsmouth Football Club's history which may just need updating very soon. Emerging from this area, you find yourself in a room which again houses temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit there was a superb collection of photographs entitled 'A Walk Along Portsmouth Seafront' that ranged from views of South Parade Pier to close-ups of the ebbing tide, mostly in black-and-white. I noticed that it was possible to order prints of these.
The final room on the first floor has a display of paintings of various genres, mostly by local artists or of local scenes. They range from the traditional and figurative to the contemporary and abstract, a wide variety but not quite so impressive for me as the exhibition on the second floor. If you are tired by this time, you can sit at a table and look at a handful of reference books while you get your breath. I looked up Portsmouth Museum in one of these books and found that the consensus was that it is more suited to the historical reconstruction displays of the first floor than to the display of fine art. That may be so, but the top floor was the area I personally appreciated most.
I was just about to go down the stairs when I noticed an embroidery of an area of Southsea based on an Ordnance Survey map and dedicated to Thomas Ellis Owen, the architect of many of Southsea's finest nineteenth-century buildings. It was of particular interest to me because the nursery where I work is in fact housed in one of these buildings. Moreover, Annie Stunnell, who had the original idea for this embroidery, worked part-time at the nursery a few years ago. I was surprised that I hadn't known of its existence sooner.
Back on the ground floor, I wandered through the final area which houses a display entitled 'A Study in Sherlock: Uncovering the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection'. This has been bequeathed to the city of Portsmouth by Richard Lancelyn Green, who is considered to be the foremost collector of Conan Doyle memorabilia. Here you can see posters, photographs, letters and other documents and objects relating to the author, as well as his actual desk. A film of a Sherlock Holmes mystery is playing on two screens simultaneously as you walk around, with narration by Stephen Fry, the patron of the collection. As a recent addition to the museum's collection, this exhibition is likely to attract a fair number of visitors.
You then find yourself back at the reception desk. There is a small cafeteria offering hot meals as well as drinks or snacks but I did not visit it. The shop stocks cards, postcards, books and gifts of various prices; on the whole the quality of what was on sale was high rather than tacky.
I would recommend a visit to the museum if you are in either Portsmouth or Southsea, especially if the weather does not entice you to the seafront or you don't find the prospect of shopping with the crowds at Gunwharf Quays attractive. It is not really a place for disabled people unfortunately; they would be able to visit the Conan Doyle room, the ground floor temporary exhibition and the cafeteria, but there is no lift to the upper floors. The main toilets are on the first floor, but there is an accessible toilet with baby-changing facilities on the ground floor. Not a great deal here will attract very young children, but adults and families with school-age children will I'm sure find something of interest. As it is free of charge, it's worth setting aside an hour or so for a visit.
The museum is open daily from 10am until 5pm or 5.30pm from April to September. It is closed from 24 to 26 December. Groups and schools are asked to book in advance: telephone 023 9229 6905.There is a free car park, but coaches would have to park in nearby St George's Road.
Summary: A local museum and art gallery
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