What lies beneath.

Iain Aitch

Iain Aitch digs deep and finds hidden treasure in the nooks and crannies of the nation’s museums

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Scratch the surface at any number of British cities and you can’t fail to be astonished at the number and variety of museums and galleries that our nation has to offer. From slickly run grand old buildings with gift shops and skinny lattes to underground archives run by enthusiastic volunteers, we are awash with rainy day venues and school trip destinations, each offering new (and largely free) insights into the human condition and the world of artistic endeavour.

The one thing we don’t often consider about these hidden spaces is the vast quantity of material they don’t display, that sits gathering dust in unlovely warehouses or anonymous corridors. Like the oft-cited iceberg, Britain’s cultural havens have far more depth than a cursory glance might imply. Our view of cultural (or even scientific) history is often skewed, as questions of space, fashion, cost, fragility or even the taste of individual curators fundamentally alters what we get to see. Almost all of these elements were at play when it came to the display of George Cruikshank’s sizeably glorious portrait of Britain’s binge drinking habits, The Worship of Bacchus. The enormous painting (over 2mx4m) stayed under wraps for 100 years before its outing at Tate Britain in 2001. But when it was unveiled, what had been an inconvenience (its size) suddenly became a media sensation.

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Fortunately, many of our cultural institutions now realise the value of their collections: recent years have seen an explosion in ‘never seen before’ artworks and the launch of online archives. The Manchester Hermit highlighted Manchester Museum’s rather impressive archive – drawing public attention to its four million or so items in store (including lost treasures from its Darwin collection), while Manchester Art Gallery has taken its archive and run with it (not literally, of course), with a Francisco De Goya show that brings together an archive of work not seen together for 20 years. The 30 prints on display are just a fraction of the whole of the Gallery’s collection of Goya etchings – which includes 90 rare first edition prints acquired in the 1980s. But before you start a campaign to Free The Goya 90, this show is followed by another look at the archive in February 2010.

Part of the trend to free the nation’s lost art treasures from the holding cells of the archives, Imperial War Museum North was opened with a remit to exhibit more of the work owned by this great national museum. It now regularly shows rarely-seen work by war artists – it recently dusted off John Keane’s Peace Giant, as well as drawings from the Prussian Ravensbück concentration camp by French resistance fighter Violette Lecoq. These works have not been on show since they were acquired.

History buffs looking for things to do in Manchester could do worse than head for The Lowry, which, as you would expect, has the world’s largest collection of the Manchester artist’s work. Loans and seldom seen works can be found on the walls, though those who like to delve should book an appointment to see the LS Lowry Archive, which contains everything from paintbrushes to personal letters – objects and artefacts that would otherwise sit unseen in a vault. Elsewhere, the Whitworth Art Gallery holds perhaps the most impressive collection of textiles and wallpapers outside London, and, on the subject of bringing precious, fragile items out of the vaults and on to the Internet, the John Rylands Library has shown the way by creating a browser full of images from their famed papyrus collection (which includes early fragments of the Old and New Testaments).

Moving out of Manchester (and skipping the archive-fest of London, where the British Museum has enough archives to keep you rooting around for years), National Museums Liverpool has one of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in Europe, which is enough of an incentive (and a surprise) for any art student visiting the city. They will also be wowed by the Walker Gallery’s collection of painting amassed by 19th century Liverpool collectors William Roscoe and Joseph Mayer, which spans four centuries and includes some, frankly, jaw-dropping pieces (everything from medieval manuscripts to Renaissance paintings).

Those who like their culture quirky should check out the National Fairground Archive (NFA) in Sheffield. Previously a collection you had to know about to wangle your way into, the archive attracted such interest that public displays have been set up (a history of circus performance, anyone?). And there’s no better example of how inspiration blossoms when archive material is released than the collaboration between the NFA and artist Marisa Carnesky – her Ghost Train is a ‘nightmarish fairground ride’ described by The Guardian as ‘one of the most magical rides you’ll ever experience’. The NFA has even turned its archives into a kind of living history, reviving fairground and entertainment traditions in seaside towns with shows such as Admission All Classes – proof positive that unleashing the archives can have spectacularly creative results.

Fantasies, Follies and Disasters: The Prints of Francisco de Goya is on display at Manchester Art Gallery until February 2010. Putting on The Glitz, an exhibition of fabulous, glittering wallpapers, runs at The Whitworth Art Gallery until November.

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Iain Aitch is a freelance writer and journalist, and the author of We’re British, Innit and A Fête Worse Than Death.

Image credits (top to bottom): Experience of War Silo, Imperial War Museum North courtesy Len Grant; The Manchester Museum, courtesy Susie Stubbs; Stevens’ Glamour on Parade Show (1961), courtesy The National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield

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