I haven’t set foot in the National Media Museum since I was about 12, and it was just a museum of film and photography back then. We were there to see a film, and I recall only the sense of a cramped, narrow building, and a claustrophobically large cinema screen. My expectations when I was invited to a bloggers event there this week were, let’s say, limited.
It took about 15 seconds for me to realise I’d underestimated the place. I couldn’t say whether it was as I walked through the door set in the huge glass wall, as I was greeted at the entrance to a welcoming sofa area in the new cosy cafe bar, or as I tucked into the delicious flatbread pizza laid on for us along with countless varieties of salad and some perfectly gooey chocolate brownies, but at some point I checked myself, thinking, hang on: I need to take this place a bit more seriously!
After a drink and a nibble we headed up to have a look at a couple of the museum’s temporary exhibits.
Until 16th June, there’s an exhibition celebrating 100 years of Bollywood, and we were treated to a guided tour by Irna Qureshi, the curator and a real Bollywood expert. I learned so much in such a short time! Quite apart from the colourful, almost psychedelic aesthetic of the film posters themselves, this exhibition has a lot going for it. If, like me, you don’t know a lot about Bollywood I’d recommend using the intelligently placed QR codes which will fill you in on some background.
It was such a privilege to hear from Irna. Among other things, she told us that Bollywood films are often known in India as masala films, because they contain a little of each of the spices of life, and that when it comes to these films, nothing matters so much as the cast. Often real life couples are a huge box office draw, because people want to see them together, and the stars can reach a stratospheric level of fame. It’s estimated that one third of the world’s population know who actor Shahrukh Khan is, despite his relative obscurity here, and chances are you will have heard of Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood patriarch, or perhaps his daughter in law, Aishwarya Rai.
Sometimes I feel dizzy in a kind of excited way when I think about all the things I don’t know about. It was so humbling to get a snapshot into this world, so similar to and simultaneously so different from Hollywood and the Western film industry. If you want to learn more, I cannot recommend Irna’s blog, Bollywood in Britain enough: she tells the story of her upbringing as a British Asian in Bradford using her favourite Bollywood films and songs to illustrate the story. It’s compelling stuff so stay tuned for the next instalment!
After the Bollywood exhibit was a rather different kettle of fish, as the museum’s Press Officer Emily Philippou introduced us to the photography of Tom Wood, who has been taking pictures of the general public for over 40 years. Considering the extent of his work, it was a bit of a surprise that this is his first UK retrospective.
The pictures were primarily taken in Liverpool, Tom’s home for many of those years, and they do boast a certain grim, Northern aspect. But there’s warmth and life oozing from every one of these shots, many taken without the knowledge of the subjects and all a tribute to the drudgery and the whimsy and the joy and the misery of day to day life.
The candid shots are the draw for most people, I think, but for me it’s the portraits among Tom’s earlier work that fascinate. His subjects, almost always strangers he approaches on the street, stare unflinchingly forward, and the lens finds their gaze without fail. The result is an uncomfortable sense of looking further into someone’s eyes than you’d like to, and of being unable to stop.
The two exhibits couldn’t look more different at first glance, but in reality they both deal with a difficult topic – what it means to be human – from strikingly dissimilar angles.
Many of you are probably aware by now that the future of the National Media Museum is in jeopardy, along with that of York’s Railway Museum and the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. You can read more about this at the BBC, at the Guardian and especially in the Telegraph and Argus.
This feels especially heartbreaking to me now, because I feel like I only just discovered it again. On Monday night I fell in love with the National Media Museum and I just can’t face it being taken away. It’s a beautiful, engaging, inclusive space, and you just don’t see enough of those around any more. I feel so angry. Angry that such a precious resource might be taken away from us, angry about this prevailing attitude that the North should bend over backwards to protect London’s interests, angry that the community of Bradford should have to fear this loss.
Don’t forget too that other cities are facing similar threats. You can sign petitions supporting all of the museums within the Science Museum Group here.