The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter, winner of Museum of the Year Award in 2012, is a thing of beauty.
The red brick Victorian facade, with its Gothic Revivalist arches and tracery, is stunning. Inside, the museum combines the sleek with the sumptuous to deliver a visitor experience that more than rivals that of its big-city counterparts.
First impressions of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) place it a cut above other provincial museums. Recent redevelopments mean that not a single faded display or dusty reconstruction featuring life-size models of plague victims feature here.
Amoung the museum’s many excellent exhibits is the ‘Finders Keepers?’ and ‘World Cultures’ galleries. ‘Finders Keepers?’ examines the history of collecting and the rationale some local collectors whose treasures had gone on to form part of the RAMM’s collections.
A label profoundly states “when you find a new object for your collection it’s like adding a piece to a jigsaw … except that you can’t tell if the picture will ever be finished”. The gallery examines some of the ethics of collecting, pointing out that some collecting that went on in the past was detrimental to peoples and the environment in other parts of the world.
The ‘World Cultures’ gallery displays the museum’s ethnographic collections. One of the most facinating displays in this section is an array of spear heads made by aboriginal Australians. Instead of being carved from flint or stone, these weapons were made from European glass, salvaged from beer bottles and other items.
With regards to East Asia, there is amoung other things a section on Buddhism and a case of fairly unspectacular ceramics. The careful glossiness of the rest of the museum meant I was surprised to see the old-fashioned Wade-Giles system, a method of romanising Mandarin Chinese, still being used on the labels instead of the contemporary pinyin system. For example, China’s last imperial dynasty is rendered ‘Ch’ing’ rather than ‘Qing’ as it would be in pinyin. Since the 1950’s Wade-Giles has been wholly replaced in China by pinyin and is now rarely seen anywhere.
Despite my disappointments in the Asian section (perhaps I’ve just been spoilt!) the RAMM well worth a visit and proof that capital cities do not have the monopoly on great heritage. My next Westcountry search for Asian art will hopefully take me to the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath.