Wellcome Collection’s ‘Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic’, London

All, London, Museums

The curators of ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ have pulled together a well-balanced mix of cheerily innocent and deeply sinister objects to explore the phenomenon of magic.

This is a short trip through the history of bent truths and humanity’s (successful?) attempts to connect, explore and communicate with the supernatural whilst trying to explain why we are so enthralled by the impossible and the dead.

The relatively no-nonsense open plan cafe in the foyer gives you the chance to reflect on the blurry edges of reality over a pot of tea.

My favourite bits:

  • A homemade and very, very creepy 20th century Ouija board covered in scratches. Even creepier: they used to sell these in children’s toy shops(!) in the 1800s…
  • A selection of magic wands from the 1920-50s. Apparently these had a variety of functions but they all look the same to me. I guess that’s the point.
  • The legendary Tommy Cooper’s iconic fez and a hilarious clip of his ‘disappearing egg’ trick.
  • The classic watch-me-saw-a-glamorous-assistant-in-half-but-not-really box, complete with a very nasty looking two-man saw.
  • A smartly presented monochrome frame-by-frame gallery of a classic cigarette trick. I still couldn’t work out how he did it!

The scores:

Exhibits: 6/10. Some nice highlights but ‘magic’ items felt a bit flat when on display.

Environment: 6/10. The Wellcome’s temporary space is, understandably, a blank canvas.

Refreshments: 6/10. Simple canteen with plenty of seats.

Cost & Location: 10/10. Free and very close to Euston and Euston Square stations.

Overall Score: 7/10.

The links:

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

All, Museums, Oxfordshire

The world’s first public museum maintains a wonderful scope and range of exhibits within its warrens of gorgeous Regency architecture on Oxford’s Beaumont Street. The Ashmolean’s pedigree makes it a must-visit for any museum fan and its roots as a private collection are apparent in its diversity and depth, making for a slightly discombobulating experience.

You can recuperate in the caverns of the redbrick basement cafe which serves outrageously small scones and a lovely selection of local juices and beers, or you can make the ascent to the open air top floor restaurant which has a pricey menu and is disappointingly enclosed which limits views out across the city.

My favourite bits:

  • The iron band used to detain Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors and a Reformation figurehead, when he was imprisoned in Oxford (pictured).
  • A 13th century ‘puzzle jug’ (pictured), a pub game where you had to get your ale by carefully twisting and pouring without it coming out of the hidden orifices.
  • Wucius Wong’s Autumn Feelings, an elegant and abstract piece of calligraphic art.
  • A large 17th century tapestry of unknown European origin, depicting A Musical Party in extraordinary detail (pictured).
  • John Rose’s gorgeously carpentered viol, made in the 17th century, with a delicate woman’s head atop the pegbox (pictured).
  • A 15th century Italian chessboard carved from bone, wood and horn (pictured). The first of MANY chessboards to feature on this blog, I assure you!
  • The porcelain gallery, a kaleidoscopic experience created with the use of glass casing throughout to create a dizzying maze of colourful plates, bowls, jugs and trinkets (pictured).
  • A trio of windows into real life in the Netherlands in the 17th century, David Tenier the Younger’s A Distillery with an Elderly Man Buying Gin and The Foot Doctor and Cornelis Bega’s The Blind Fiddler with the nigh-on photographic detail and use of light that I adore (pictured).

The scores:

Exhibits: 9/10. A true treasure trove which justifies its pedigree.

Environment: 7/10. Beautiful architecture but rooftop’s a bit of a shame.

Refreshments: 7/10. Pricey but nice to have genuinely local produce available.

Cost & Location: 10/10. Free entry and slap-bang in the city centre.

Overall Score: 8/10.

The links:

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield

All, Galleries, West Yorkshire

Yorkshire Sculpture Park offers a powerful and curious selection of sculptures in a glorious open air countryside setting. It’s an unusual combination of an artistic adventure and a weekend walk, so your dog can come too.

The Weston restaurant has an interesting lunch menu (£8-12) and classic teatime fare. The Lemon and Raspberry Drizzle cake and a cup of Lemon and Ginger tea went down well after completing the 4-mile circuit.

My favourite bits:

  • A hearty stroll up to the site’s centre past Damien Hirst’ s Myth (pictured),a flayed unicorn, and the half-peeled giant The Virgin Mother.
  • David Smith’s story in the Underground Gallery, told through his elegant and economic blacksmithing (pictured) and his weighty anti-war Medals of Dishonour.
  • An intimidating Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads (pictured) staring down like a disapproving council of aldermen, created by internationally renowned artist/political prisoner Ai Weiwei.
  • A pair of ornate medieval chessmen (pictured), King Hezekiah and Moses doing various unpleasant things to unfortunate snakes.

The scores:

Exhibits: 8/10. World famous names from the contemporary scene and generations past.

Environment: 9/10. A beautiful and unique site, loses a point for its remoteness.

Refreshments: 7/10. Tea and cake perfectly fine, I’ll need to try the lunch menu next time.

Cost & Location: 7/10. Free entry, plus £3.50 to £12 parking… and you’ll need a car!

Overall Score: 7/10.

The links: