Why Hieronymous Bosch isn’t weird. Thoughts on cultural context.

There has been an increase in stories in the press about the return of cultural objects to their place of origin. Such as Moai are family and return looted art to Africa.

One discussion has centred on the benefits of seeing an object in its original cultural context. (Whether anything has a singular cultural context is another discussion.)

For me. Seeing the works of 15th century artist Hieronymous Bosch in the town he was born and worked in changed how I understood his paintings.

I have loved the works of Bosch ever since I saw one in an art history book when I was a teenager. I was gutted to discover there was only one in the UK, and only a few in the world. Mostly scattered across museums in Europe and the US.

I liked his paintings because they were fantastical and weird. That was pretty much it. I managed to see a few as I got older and travelled to the Netherlands, Belgium, Vienna, because I lucked out on a courier trip, Kansas City.

Anyway. On the 500 anniversary of Bosch’s death. The town of his birth, the town he was named for, ‘s-Hertogenbosch or Den Bosch, held Bosch 500. The Nordbrabants Museum exhibited Hieronymous Bosch Visions of Genius, bringing together Bosch paintings and drawings from across the world. This was the culmination of a massive research and conservation project, inspired by exceptional vision from a town that didn’t even have a Bosch to call its own. I could not wait to visit! All the Bosch at once!!!

But it was much more than that. Bosch 500 was a truly immersive experience which saw the whole city celebrate its famous son. I saw pottery and tools from the time of Bosch (as depicted in his works), the massive cathedral that many of his works once occupied, underground canals, elaborate murals, sculptures of his creations, and frog ornaments. In gardens. On walls. What was with the frog?

Then I found the small but rather brilliant Carnival Museum. Lots of visitors walked past this museum. They missed out. Because they did not learn about Oeteldonk.

During carnival Den Bosch becomes Oeteldonk. A world is turned upside down. The flag of Oetelbonk depicts a frog. Carnival happened in Bosch’s time and still happens today. I think it would be fair to say alcohol played and plays a large part. Once I knew it existed Oetelbonk was always on the edge of my vision. Especially after a drink… I think that may have been how a 15th century mind perceived Heaven and Hell too.

Heaven. Hell. s-Hertogenbosch. Oeteldonk. Visually rich. Populated by diverse beings. Transitionary. Rennaisance. Intense. But no longer so weird. Bosch 500 allowed me to really experience the world of Hieronymous Bosch. This could only have been achieved in Den Bosch (and Oetelbonk).

Although. At the beginning of this blog I mentioned that objects may not have a singular cultural context.

Bosch’s paintings were made in Den Bosch, but were commissioned for Austria or Spain. Because I can never get enough Bosch I went to see the Prado’s Bosch exhibition. In a Catholic country. Different exhibition. Different context. Different experience.

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Fashion and the challenge of choices

Visited the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Fashioned from Nature.

Jean Paul Gaultier dress

Dress by Jean Paul Gaultier

Great exhibition which considered the impact of industrialised fashion on the environment, animals and humans.

V&A Cotton label; cotton picking in Savannah, USA 1890; cotton bolls and dress.

I’m not one for digital interactives on the whole. Usually too broken, too slow, too boring. But the elegant and simple Fashion Futures 2030 struck a chord.

You have to swipe through a few questions about how you’d live your fashion life in 2030.

Mine came out Safety Race even though I thought I’d made ethical choices ūü§®.

Left: my result. Right: the world I’d prefer.

It demonstrated the need for a strategic approach rather then cherry-picking the things you like the sound of. Which I think is what most of us do when it comes to sustainability.

Lesson learned. We’d better aim for Living with Less or we’re all screwed.

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The Venice Biennale, a guide and a review

How does it work? 

There are two main venues.

1. The Arsenale. A massive historic building. It has lots of artist’s works grouped by theme, plus a few pavilions. A pavilion is a space that represents a country, with art from one or more artists.

2. The Giardini. A park full of many small pavilions. These are permanent buildings, one for each country represented. They are architecturally fascinating.

You buy a ticket for both venues. Look for the “biglietti”  (ticket office) near the entrance for each venue. Then join the “Ingresso” entrance queue to get in.

Also. There are various pavilions and exhibits around Venice. It is a great way to nosey inside fabulous Venetian palazzos.

At The Arsenale

The building is more impressive than the art. Occasionally a cool or fun or striking bit of art makes an appearance.

The Arsenale, a selection

The best art is that which appears to respond to the building.

Julian Charriere

There is a very important crane.

Armstrong-Mitchell Hydraulic Crane

I see a submarine over the water.

Italian Pavilion. Proper weird. Inflatable tunnel. Resin body parts. What’s not to like? Nothing. That’s what.

Italy’s Pavilion, Roberto Cuoghi

It is a very pleasant walk through residential neighbourhoods between the two main venues.

At The Giardini

If you only do one venue, do this one. It’s a park so it feels very relaxed. It has most of the pavilions.

Spain. Not as interesting at their political situation. Or most of their historical art. Still there’s a lot to live up to.

Old art ladies have amazing trousers. I will be an old art lady one day. With amazing trousers.

Netherlands. Mondrian colours. Video. Which means you can sit down and have a rest.

A man who is art walks past slowly. I photograph him. This is what happens next.

Hungary. Beautiful building. Peace on earth neon. Utopian references. A soft seat to watch the video art. Hurrah for a comfy seat.

Hungary’s Pavilion

United States. The first artwork takes up all the space and oppresses you.

US Pavilion, Mark Bradford

Israel. It is mould. Literally. A massive mouldy cotton wool cloud. It smells funny. I like it. A man touches it. Naughty.

Israel’s Pavilion, Gal Weinstein

Austria. Has a lorry on its nose. This is the only way a wheeled vehicle gets into Venice. As art. Everyone is queuing to look inside. I can’t be arsed.

Egypt. Dramatic cinematic art. A multiscreen fairytale. In a mud palace. The ending is a bit annoying. I need to know. Alive or dead?

Venice. The theme is luxury, the craft, tools and materials that create it. It is gorgeous and decadent. A Venetian fantasy as only Venice can.

Selection from the Venetian Pavilion

I bump into a person I know. Get me. So international.  We are museum people so we do not do big arty air-kisses. We just say hello and chat.

The Nordic pavilion has actual trees growing through it. Of course it does.

Around and about

Armenia.  In an extensive and ever so slightly crumbly Venetian Palazzo with large gardens.

Armenia’s Pavilion, Jean Boghossian

Scotland. Rachel McLean. As intensive and weird as you’d expect. In a church. We sat in pews to watch. Perfect Sunday morning visit.

Jan Fabre’s. Glass and bone. Like it says.

Jan Fabre

Glasstress. A regular biennale exhibition. In a beautiful palazzo that pulls out all the stops (marble, wall paintings, fancy woodwork, mega murano glass chandeliers etc). Starts with glass boobs, sausages and buttplugs. Then hurls increasingly amazing pieces of glass art at you.

Ai Weiwei

Intuition at Palazzo Fortuny. Everything. There was everything.  Basquiat. Ancient menhirs. Anish Kapoor. Giorgio de Chirico. Mariano Fortuny’s library. Rich fabrics. Architectural models. Furniture.  It was so intensive I actually needed the black room filled with black paintings to relax.

Thierry de Cordier, Grand Nada 2007-12

Biennale notes

Visitors are either cultural tourists or Biennale regulars.  Kids are entranced and engaged by contemporary art. Dogs appear to be allowed. Sometimes there are police in the art. With hand guns.

Labels and interpretation are mostly available in English. On the whole I avoid contempory art interpretation. It has a habit of spoiling the art. Mainly by talking bollocks.

I did the Arsenal and the Giardini in one day. Normal people might prefer to do it over two days. Allow lots of time to see things outside of the main venues. You can wander aimlessly and you’ll come across Biennale stuff. I found several things like that. Some  newspapers did useful articles on what to see at the Biennale. I used those too. Thanks to the Telegraph and Independent.

That’s the Venice Biennale. I’d go again.

Abdulnasser Gharem


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I visit the Venice Biennale. I accidently become art.

I am at the Venice Biennale 2017.

A man who is art walks past slowly. He is wearing a long white and navy apron. He jingles quietly like bells.

I photograph him.

Oh fuck. He turns. He comes right up to me and looks directly at me. He speaks quietly. I try not to panic.

He invites me to his garden. I follow. It would be rude not to. Photographing art is not a neutral act.

He leads me through a curtain. Into a Japanese garden.

There is a seat with. A label saying “do not sit”. And a stone tied up in string.

He picks up the stone. He picks up the label. He asks me to sit. I do.

Will I wait for him. Yes. I have become performance art. Lots of people are photographing me.

I wait for him. He comes back. Good. He holds a wooden tray out towards me. There is a sealed letter on it. He says I should open it next time I experience a moment of pure beauty. I say yes.

He thanks me. I thank him. I can stop being art.


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How to buy a palace. And other thoughts on being a charity trustee.

I have just stepped down after almost six years as a Trustee for Hartlebury Castle Preservation Trust. I have previously been a trustee for a range of heritage sector organisations including professional development, strategic, and heritage preservation bodies.

I thought I’d put down some thoughts on being a charity trustee. I hope this is useful to those who want to know more or are considering becoming a trustee.

Being a trustee is a fantastic professional and personal development opportunity, a chance to give something back, an opportunity to diversify your networks, a way to develop your CV, and gain management and leadership experience. Great. But. It is more than going to meetings. It is hard work. And it is a lot of responsibility.

So. What did I achieve?

  • I helped save a unique piece of heritage for public use.
  • I learnt a lot from working with my fellow trustees who were from diverse backgrounds and had a wide range of professional experience between them.

Best bit?

Scariest bit?

  • Spending ¬£2m of public money purchasing a historic building.

Would I do it again?

  • Yes. But not for a while. The responsibility is significant. Being a trustee is stressful at times.

Fancy it?

Then. Your go-to information source is the Charity Commission website. This provides advice for trustees, on governance, and annual reports for all registered charities. You cannot spend too much time on this website.

To get the best out of being a trustee.

  • Identify the charity or area of charity work you feel strongly about.
  • Consider which skills you can offer.
  • Think about what you would like to learn more about.
  • Be clear about what you will not do.
  • Then look for vacancies.

Essentials before you sign up.

  • Know your responsibilities.
  • Look at the charity’s annual report and accounts.
  • Also the website. Does it say what the charity does? Is it up to date? If not why not?
  • Understand the charity’s governance. Is it incorporated or unincorporated? Is it a company limited by guarantee? A CIC or a CIO? Ask the other trustees (if they are not clear – do not join). Do your own research (what are you liable for if it all goes belly-up?).
  • Meet one or more existing trustees.
  • Ask if you can join a board meeting as an observer.Does the chair manage the meeting well? Does every trustee participate? How do they interact as a group?
  • Is there clarity on money in the bank and up coming commitments? Does the Treasurer bring a copy of the latest bank statement?

By the time you decide to become a trustee or a trustee director (if you are not sure which it is, you have not done your research) you should know the Charity Commission website and your chosen charity very well indeed.

And. Just so you know.

If you work for a charity being a trustee will give you insights into your own board and the responsibilities and choices they face. This is not necessarily a good thing…

Posted in Careers, Fundraising, Heritage, History, Museums, Trustee | 1 Comment

I wrote to my MP to express my concerns about racism and the rise of the far-right

Some people in this country are living in fear. This is wrong. I am not sure what I can do. But. I can ask those in charge what they are doing.

I wrote to my MP to express my concerns about the impact of the EU referendum outcome. You could too.

Dear Harriet Baldwin MP,

This morning you suggested that those who were signing the petition for a second referendum should join a political party. My response was that whilst there are individual MP’s I respect, the major political parties have behaved appallingly. They have been deeply divided, resulting in poor messaging on both the Leave and Remain campaigns. Over the last few years the Conservative Party has delivered divisive messages on the NHS, social welfare and¬†immigration.

I voted Remain because I believe the European Union is a symbol of unity.

My greatest worry is not the economic impact or the loss of freedom of movement for European citizens. It is that the Leave result has legitimised xenophobic and racist behaviour. You will have seen the stories of people being told to leave the UK on social media, face-to-face on the street, and by letters through their doors. I fear that our society will become increasingly racist and that this will lead to the growth of extreme right-wing political parties.

I would like to know what you are doing to:

  • counter racism,
  • create cohesion between different communities,
  • proactively combat the growth of the far right.

I will not join a political party until one convinces me that it is committed to delivering on the above. In the meantime I will support charities and organisations can demonstrate impact in working towards these aims.

Yours sincerely,
Rachel Cockett
[West Worcestershire]

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They stole my flag

The 1980s. When I was young the Union Flag was a symbol of the far-right. When I saw it I felt a bit wary. Who was flying it?  And why? And were they looking at me?

Image: By White Flight - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6824232

National Front march from the 1970s. The movement from which the BNP would emerge by 1982.

The 1990s. The whole Cool Britannia thing changed that. In 1996 there this rather fabulous collaboration between David Bowie and Alexander McQueen. Great artists both. How could the flag not be cool?

David Bowie, Coat by Alexander McQueen

David Bowie, coat by Alexander McQueen

2012. At the London Olympics there were plenty of reasons to wave it, from the amazing opening ceremony, to the achievement of our athletes. It could be a celebratory symbol. I felt pretty happy about it.


Mo Farah celebrates winning the men’s 5000m final at the London 2012 Olympic Games

Last week. I drove into my station and a large group of UKIP Leave campaigners were flying the Union Flag alongside banners that said: “we want our country back”.

Today. I walked past a scarecrow made for a parish competition (it’s a rural thing). It was decorated with ‘GB’ signs and Union Flags. In fact, based on the scarecrow design, the theme was tennis and the flags were celebratory. But. I still¬†felt uncomfortable. Like I did in the 1980s.

They stole my flag.

Yes. I do want my country back.*

*still working out the most effective way to do that.

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Oh England

You gave me my birth
Then you made me pay
What is it worth
Cast me away
You’ve really done it now
Dying in my arms
You stand here with nothing
But you’ve still got english charm

Oh England, you’re my home
My heart’s heart
Crashing thunder of love
You’re a place of the poor
Open wound
The lost rites of love

You cut your own throat
Then you let it bleed
Misleading your people
From what they all need
Roots forgotten
That’s what we all say
But what does it matter
You’re the USA

Why is it England
I feel like rubbish on your streets
Why is it when I care
I feel incomplete
Why does our future seem
Such a feat
When will our consciousness
Finally meet

England My Home
The Levellers

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Goodbye to an old friend


I moved to Birmingham. I lived in the city centre, almost next door to Central Library. For a year it was my local lending library. I used it occasionally for borrowing books for several more years. In time I become aware of its huge reference collection.


The reference library served me well whilst I researched and wrote my Master’s Dissertation. A helpful librarian showed me how to use the index card system and how to get more books from the stacks. Over many months she became (in my head…) *my librarian*. Almost every reference source I needed was there.


I started work at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. The Library was a neighbour once again. We worked with Library colleagues on collections digitisation projects. Some still exist. I learnt about the Library’s amazing photography and local archive collections.

14 December 2015

Demolition of the Library began.


Every day people gather outside the Museum and take photos of the work as it progresses. My days at work are accompanied by the sounds of demolition. My office overlooks the Library. I have a privileged view.


The escalators rarely worked. The lifts often broke down too.

The cafe was… ¬†erm… extremely municipal.

The ceilings were low and loomed menacingly.

The staff office spaces were pretty grim.

The striking Brutalist architecture had been disfigured with a tacked on shopping centre (though the Gregg’s was handy…).

The surrounding spaces such as Paradise Place were…well…post-apocalyptic. Though I kinda liked that.

The demolition is incredible to watch.

I loved this building.
Goodbye old friend.


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Fabulous free images from British Library

British Library offers over 1 million free vintage images for download.

News story here.

Have a play with the British Library Flickr site here.

My name in fabulous typography.

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