To begin with, I have to confess that I didn't 'do' the whole museum. An inventive pricing scheme means that you have to decide, before you enter the museum, what you want to see, i.e. the Castle & History Zone, Art & Exhibitions Zone, Natural History Zone, or all three. Each zone carries an admission, though once you're in, you can stay all day. Over the years I've had enough of Romans and Vikings, so plumped for the Arts & Exhibitions Zone. I handed the attendant a range of membership/discount cards (Museums Association, NUS, National Arts Collection Fund and Association of Arts Historians) and got in free!
A large proportion of the art collection currently on show consists of Victorian paintings or art on a local theme - perfectly pleasant, but not really my thing. My new found insider knowledge of etchings (did a print workshop a couple of weekends ago) gave me a new appreciation of the etchings in the collection and I enjoyed the twentieth-century paintings of East Anglian landscapes, particularly those by Edward Seago (a self-taught oil painter, who - before becoming an artist - ran off to join the circus!).
The world's largest teapot, made for the Great Exhibition, 1851.
I was pleasantly surprised by the interpretive techniques employed in the galleries. There was the standard combination of basic objects labels and larger text panels, but the curatorial team had made use of poetry, particularly a poem by Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, at the entrance to the main art gallery. I guess the aim was to engage visitors with the artworks and provide something thought-provoking to encourage people to think about the works on a deeper level beyond surface aesthetics.
I'd like to say that the exhibition currently on display in the Bernard Matthew's gallery (yes, it's really called that, I do not jest. Bernie, as he's known in my neck of the woods, is a significant local figure - almost part of East Anglian mythology these days - and major employer (though, perhaps not for much longer, what with the turkey twizzlers debacle and bird 'flu) was - wait for it - clucking good, but I can't. 'Waterlog' is inspired by 'The Rings of Saturn' by W.G. Sebald who, until his untimely death in 2001 in a car accident, was a tutor on the famous MA Creative Writing course at U.E.A. I can strongly recommend the book (it's fabulous), but the works on show, specially commissioned from a number of British artists, just didn't move me.
The Arts & Exhibition Zone ticket includes entry to the decorative arts galleries. My particular favourite was the Twinings Gallery of British teapots (I once applied for a job as the curator of the collection - didn't get it, big shame, cos I'm a real tea connoisseur and I love teapots!). Also on show were fairly substantial collections of ceramics and silverware. I was impressed by the museum's attempts to gather the opinions of its users to inform a planned refit of the decorative arts galleries. Visitors are encouraged to fill in a form telling the museum what they like/dislike about the current displays, and what they'd like to see more/less of. Okay, a fairly superficial contribution, but shows an enlightened attitude on the part of the curatorial team all the same.
An interesting installation by Julian Walker, which links 'flawed' objects from the collection, with the names of prisoners once incarcerated in the castle when it was a prison.
I haven't been to the Castle Museum for a number of years and certainly not since its refit. I was impressed. While the admission fee (around £6 to see everything) seemed a little steep initially, there really is enough to keep one occupied for a whole day, which you could punctuate with lunch in the really nice atrium cafe and a bit of retail therapy in the museum shop (or the adjacent Castle Mall!). I can strongly recommend it!