59: Pinecones on the chairs in the museum
Hello. Welcome to Border Crossing issue #59.
I hope you’re well. New subscribers, welcome onboard, thank you very much for signing up.
This time I’m thinking about fashion items in museums and the value — or not — of ‘celebrity’ as heritage and history.
This week my radio show gets a new slot: on Slack City Radio my show moves to Sundays, 12noon. It becomes Sunday HONK! — like a weekend market in the village churchyard, if everyone did shrooms. The music will mostly be the same but it’s a looser remit, so more room for dicking around.
Sadly Folkhampton has ended on Radio Reverb, after two years on air. It’s a great station and the team was supportive — but without a sponsor (and with community radio’s scary advertising rules) I can’t justify the ‘carriage fee’.
Last week the Possibility Club podcast guest was Lemn Sissay and one of Richard Freeman’s best interviews, I think. (find it wherever you get pods but this is a Spotify link)
I’ve wolfed down Benjamin Myers’ short new novel The Perfect Golden Circle. It’s about two men making crop circles, in rural south-west England at the end of the 1980s. It’s just wonderful. Also, Tim Key reading it on Audible is pitch perfect casting.
With uncomfortable timing, Slate’s excellent Slow Burn history podcast launches its seventh season, telling the story of Roe v. Wade and American reproductive rights, which are now under assault by the far-right weighted Supreme Court and scarily potent conservative campaigning.
India’s hit biopic Gangubai Kathiawadi is up on Netflix, telling the story of an infamous sex worker and activist in Mumbai in the mid 20th century. That’s some very taboo topics for Bollywood, navigated with tons of verve. Alia Bhatt is sensational.
UK friends, classic British post-war comedy Passport To Pimlico is up on BBC iPlayer for a month. If you haven’t, do.
I’ve fallen for twice-weekly podcast ICYMI, with Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher. It’s a primer for the chaos of Internet culture and social media wars. Listening makes me feel like an ancient half-man half-tree — but it’s worth it for all this crazy shit I had no idea was going on.
Last week newspapers around the world covered the eBay auction of a single ‘rare’ Pringle (with a fold in it) for £2,000. This sounded suspiciously familiar. A bit of sleuthing and yes, folded Pringles were already a commodity. Here’s Unilad from last year, when someone sold one for £650. What the actual fuck.
by the way, the phenomenal Mark Cousins cinephile documentary The Story Of Film: A New Generation that I recommended last Border Crossing, when it was on the BFI player, has already gone up on Netflix.
I had some lovely replies about my foiled attempt to rebrand to ‘Honky Horn’. Thank you, if you wrote or tweeted. Bournemouth’s ukulele virtuoso T’Other Simon suggests that, with slight adjustment to ‘Honk The Horn’, it might still make a viable business name. I’ll take that under advisement, Simon.
Thanks also to Barry Oxygen Thief (Bristol’s punk/folk sweetheart) for agreeing (perhaps too enthusiastically) that it was a terrible brand-name, even though he’s himself promoted gigs under the moniker Username Taken and once ran a merchandise company called Sew Fucking What. Nice.
Funnily enough, Lara M in Sheffield and Paul Goodwin in Cambridge both write to remind me that I actually sang one of those ‘Jeremy Clarkson’ songs live a few times — a tragic ballad called ‘Bad Lighthouse Keeper’ about how Mrs Clarkson exterminated the last living Fraggle. Honestly, I had completely put that one out of my memory altogether.
Pinecones on the chairs in the museum
Provincial museums put pinecones on the chairs and sofas, when they are historical on display, to stop visitors sitting on them. It’s a pleasingly gentle, organic way to get the message across. Bums off. Of course, they make me think of hedgehogs.
I’d forgotten about the pinecones til three weeks ago. First we went to Pallant House in Chichester and they were everywhere. Then a few days later, accidentally I found myself on a guided tour of Preston Manor, on the northern outskirts of Brighton, as part of a small group involved in a project over summer. Paula the ghost expert showed us around. Paula’s a force of nature, makes delicious teacakes and knows when the ghouls may come. And there they were again, pinecones on the seats.
Sometimes at museums, they’re large, ornate cones, which I suspect are purchased from a hipster homeware depot, rather than gathered from the local park. Still.
The BBC series Secrets Of The Museum explores behind the scenes at the V&A. It has completed three seasons so far. You can watch series two and three on the iPlayer. For me, the conservators and the backroom staff are the draw: they’re fascinating, cute eccentrics, every time. I love their watchable ability to focus, hone in on intimate detail, and lose themselves in minutiae for hours on end, their emphasis on delicacy and pure craft, while repairing or preserving some priceless artefact. Unusual people to see onscreen at all and very refreshing, it makes for tasty character study. Higher up the food chain, the curators are more of a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re convincing, with some vision and abiding, careful love for sharing their specialty in the correct way. Sometimes though, a couple of curators at least, feel tethered to this world by pandering star-struck energy, swimming far too deep in PR lingo. They know the language of the camera too well for my taste. That’s fine of course — all of it makes for a good television show. I guess the V&A is too big for pinecones, by the way. I don’t see any. Probably, the museum can staff every room.
Several items shown on the telly series being prepped for display, or to go out on loan, are historic bits of clothing from the theatre and pop worlds. This can be funny: days spent on a shiny suit worn by Jim from Slade (yeah, the 1970s glam band who loved to shout about Christmas). Sometimes though, that urge to preserve crosses a line for me, when the curators get infatuated with a totally daft item that surely doesn’t need to be anywhere near the museum. There’s one bit when a curator and a famous set designer waste a bucket of time and money building an obviously questionable piece of snakey decoration to pointlessly frame an exhibition, which they realise looks bollocks as soon as its installed. Then they have to spin its value to justify it. I’m being subjective, of course. But I also feel like it’s obvious when the conservators bite their lips about dumb stuff they have to waste days carefully scraping the dust off.
Like, for me, say, the white calico toile — that is, an all-white rough-hewn tailor’s mockup for a suit design — made by Sandy Powell and signed by film stars and celebrities.
So, over the past two years there’s been a national campaign to save Derek Jarman’s iconic home and garden Prospect Cottage, on the seafront at Dungeness. The site was at risk of being sold off in the private sector, so the Art Fund gathered the forces of righteousness and raised money like mad to purchase it ‘for the nation’, to make sure it is preserved and looked after. It was a brilliant effort. One generous campaigner was the storied British costume designer Sandy Powell. Powell is a goat of her craft, multi- award-winning, she works with directors like Scorsese and Todd Haynes and others. But she came up through the heady London subterranean art world of people like Lindsey Kemp and Derek Jarman. Powell was a close friend of Jarman, he was a mentor. Her breakthrough work was the jaw-dropping costumes for Jarman’s masterpiece Orlando.
When this campaign got going, Powell had a smart wheeze: she went along to the Academy Awards and BAFTAs dressed in a plain all-white tailor’s mockup suit — kind of like the fitted blank canvas for fashion designers — which she got loads of celebrities and film critics and hangers-on to autograph with fat black pens. The suit was then auctioned to raise something like £30,000 for the campaign. It was bought by science entrepreneur and business leader Edwina Dunn, who then promptly donated it back. The campaign was successful and Prospect Cottage was rescued. Yay. Job done.
On Secrets Of The Museum, it becomes clear that this white suit covered all over in celebrity sharpie marks is now under the wing of the V&A, to be treated like a bona fide historic artefact in its own right. Experts do the usual repair and preservation strengthening work, for future display. They discuss whether to remove wine stains from all those awards parties.
By now my grumpiness is in full flow, regardless the obviously good-willed aspects of this endeavour. Isn’t it bullshit to put some piece of fundraising schtick into a museum like that? Surely it has no artistic or heritage value, in and of itself? It’s a signed suit. Memorabilia in the Hard Rock Café sense. Like getting a random football signed for charity by famous footballers and then deciding it should be behind glass at the British Museum. Who is to say? But Chris, they were all doing a good thing and it succeeded — that’s what matters. Stop nitpicking.
Days later I’m still stewing, when the camera lens of this essay pans dizzily across the Atlantic ocean to float above the Met Gala in New York City. Here’s Kim Kardashian, posing outside the venue on the red carpet, cameras flashing. They will clear slots on the actual news for this: Kim is wearing the infamous dress worn by Marilyn Monroe, when she sang the lascivious “Happy birthday, Mr President” for John F. Kennedy. Suddenly, a lot of people are fervently discussing the notion of fabric conservation, gnashing teeth and rending clothes (ha) about how museums treat important items of clothing, and whether Kardashian risked damaging such a precious piece of sartorial heritage. Here’s (yes, sorry) Town & Country magazine on the sordid affair. How could it be properly looked after, if someone can just, you know, wear it to a ball?
Turns out Marilyn’s dress isn’t owned by a ‘real’ museum, where it might be treated carefully by experts like our V&A conservators. It’s owned by a sort of carni — waxworks — novelty publishing troupe thing called Ripley’s Believe It Or Not that is perfectly happy to rent it out to be stitched onto a super-celebrity for a big party and some news headlines.
This feels like the usual binary waffle of an argument is emerging. Yawn. Luckily, then Dan Kois pipes up, on Slate Culture Gabfest —
‘This is the tackiest of artefacts from one of the tackiest moments in American history. And it absolutely deserves to to be warn again in a modern-day celebration of the gauche. The ideal use for this garment is to be worn again at the Met Gala in 2022. Far better for it to serve that purpose, than for it to be in a museum. Certainly the Smithsonian wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole … I love this and I love that she wore it. The fact that she wore it represents everything right with the downfall and decline of American society, and the way it provides incredible, complicated eye-candy for the rest of us to enjoy, as society goes to shit.’
First, of course, Kois is spot on, even as his co-presenters laugh at the nihilism of his take. My internal monologue (unwisely shared with you) about some lurid item in the V&A isn’t wrong or right per se, it doesn’t matter.
Yet, secondly, when Kois name-checks the Smithsonian mid rant, in a tacit endorsement of that lofty institution’s snobbery (‘the Smithsonian wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole’) it shakes me for a moment and I immediately flash to what I most associate the Smithsonian with these days; the damned Sackler family and the catastrophic American opioid epidemic they instigated. The Smithsonian may not’ve touched a trashy frock with a ten foot pole, but damn straight they got a ten foot boner when the super-rich druglord Richard Sackler came calling, demanding help to hide all his bodies.
I’ve got it all wrong. Sell it all off! This stuff is mere garnish for the great decline! It’s Station Eleven’s ‘museum of civilisation’. We can end up with a ‘heritage sector’ Platinum Membership version of ‘Rent The Runway’, whereby you can get hold of a famous Georgian chair, throw the pinecone away and sit your bum on it to your heart’s content. And I write all of it down, draft and redraft… and then remember… for fuck’s sake. Way back in 2005, walking down the aisle, getting married in an Indian frockcoat in The Royal Pavilion in Brighton, in that glorious archaic Red Drawing Room. It’s what triggered my interest in the Georgian period in the first place. Which led to arts residencies and great chunks of creative work over the years. So basically I’m my own beardy old Kim Kardashian in my own Marilyn dress (albeit I’d argue a more romantic, less toxic one) and, despite wandering through a mess of ethics here, still I’d forgotten entirely that I already sat on a pinecone.
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All my love and all good things, as always.