“… much of the work and all of the play were suddenly at an end.”
The Munnings Art Museum
“… much of the work and all of the play were suddenly at an end.” (Sir Alfred Munnings)
Jenny Hand, Director of the Munnings Art Museum describes the last twelve months in the life of the museum
There is nothing quite like the feeling of emptiness that invades you when the museum you run is void of visitors. The quietness is deafening. In more usual times the steady burble of voices, which starts in the hushed tones of enquiry and rises to sudden exclamations of discovery, is one of the joys of working in a special place like the Munnings Art Museum.
At the beginning of March 2020 the museum was all set for another exciting season riding high on the achievements of the previous year; 2019 was the most successful in its six decade history when the museum exhibited 45 First World War paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings on loan from the Canadian War Museum.
As the pandemic took hold we had to cancel volunteer orientations, coach party bookings and planned events. Our new exhibition, Yours With Love, AJ sat silent as opening day came and went in the first lockdown. There was some good news, however, when our latest book, which inspired the exhibition, made it to the printer just in time. The book is the culmination of years of painstaking work to transcribe fifty-four letters written by Alfred Munnings to his new wife Violet in the early 1920s when he was away from home painting the portraits of wealthy patrons.
The constraints of lockdown brought a new wave of creativity from the cultural sector. Museums searched for ways to engage with people at home through social media. Under the hashtag #showmethemunnings we set ourselves the challenge of completing a nationwide virtual tour of paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings in public museums by the end of lockdown. Each day we posted a different painting on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram channels. The reaction was joyous and demonstrated how uplifting experiencing art can be, even when online. One follower commented, “I’m loving my daily Munnings. They make my day <3”.
The art of Sir Alfred Munnings kept us uplifted and connected, too. We devised a series of bite-sized email updates about the new exhibition which enabled us to stay in touch with our volunteers, staff and trustees reinforcing our togetherness.
The opening of the museum at the beginning of September couldn’t have been further away from that of the previous year: visitors snaked through the building in a thin, orderly line, their visits measured out by the new timed-ticket system. We welcomed them from behind our barriers of plastic, rope and cloth. But, some surprising opportunities came with all this strangeness. The slower, more deliberate pace gave visitors space and time to contemplate the artworks. Stewards embraced the challenge of stepping into new positions and stretching the boundaries of their previous roles.
The late summer also brought sunshine and colour. The cancelled workshop tutors and live-horse models from earlier in the year were re-booked and we soon had small, socially-distanced groups of budding and professional artists stirring the museum grounds into life again. Their paintings of an elegant side-saddle rider and two majestic Suffolk Punches were more than just artistic endeavours. They embodied new-found freedoms.
November dealt us all a fresh blow with the arrival of a second lockdown but the small team that was able to continue turned its focus towards Christmas mail orders. Our web shop was given a make-over and its new array of books, prints and gifts, including art-inspired facemasks, was promoted to our growing online following. The shop received an unprecedented volume of orders in December.
Key to this revamped retail-offer was another new publication, entitled Where Shallows Talk. Edited by Dr Tim Gardiner, it is an anthology of poetry, written by sixteen local poets, in response to the paintings of Alfred Munnings during our exhibition Munnings and the River when Tim was the museum’s poet-in-residence.
As I write this we are energetically making plans for re-opening. Emails are pinging into the inbox from our keen to return volunteer stewards. Dates for summer art workshops are being discussed and tutors and models are checking their diaries. The exhibition Yours With Love, AJ patiently awaits its visitors and we look forward to the moment when the silent rooms of Castle House are filled once more with the sounds of carefree chatter.
Director, the Munnings Art Museum
Our books: Behind the Lines, Yours With Love, AJ, Munnings and the River and Where Shallows Talk are all available to buy online or over the phone.