Norman Cornish: The Sketchbooks was an exhibition held at Palace Green Library from 23 November 2019 – 1 March 2020, forming part of the programme to mark the centenary of the birth of the celebrated County Durham artist. Colleagues from the Museums, Galleries and Exhibitions team worked closely with the Cornish family to present a selection of around 60 of the artist’s little-seen sketchbooks, along with carefully chosen finished paintings to provide a rich insight into Cornish’s working practice and development as an artist. The exhibition was designed to offer an intimate look at Cornish’s life and work, touching on his career as a miner, how his family encouraged and inspired his art and the many subjects for drawing and painting provided by the community of his home town of Spennymoor.
The exhibition was a huge success, attracting a wealth of positive comments from visitors. Many responded on an emotional level to Cornish’s depictions of County Durham in years gone by, a world of flat-caps and greyhounds, miners trudging to work and chip vans on street corners. Others were inspired by Cornish’s creativity, encouraged by his packed sketchbook pages to start drawing themselves. Some even left their efforts behind to display in the gallery.
Throughout my career I have worked on many temporary exhibitions, covering a wide-range of different approaches and subjects. The process for each exhibition is always unique, but one question that inevitably emerges with each new project is that of an exhibition’s legacy. Creating an exhibition requires the hard work of vast numbers of people, from the curatorial and design team, conservators who ensure works are safely and beautifully presented, technicians who build exhibition structures and of course the volunteers and front of house teams who greet visitors each day, ensuring they have an enjoyable and memorable visit. When the gallery door closes on the final day and the last happy visitors have left the building, it’s hard to shake the sense of ‘is that it?’ as the process starts all over again with the current exhibition taken down and a shiny new one appearing in its place.
“… lockdown has offered a rare chance to reflect on a past exhibition and feel renewed and excited for what comes next.”
Over the years, museums have used various approaches to document and preserve their temporary exhibitions, through printed catalogues and online galleries, but until recently it has been very hard to recreate the physical experience of visiting an exhibition, exploring it at your own pace, in your own way. Today, using 3D photography and virtual reality this experience is in reach, with more and more museums and galleries offering visitors all over the world the chance for virtual visits from the comfort of their own home. Now more than ever, this is capturing the imagination of a captive public, eager to see beyond the walls of their homes. #MuseumFromHome has been prominent on social media since the beginning of lockdown, with the BBC even devoting TV scheduling to pick up on this trend.
In the final week of the Sketchbooks exhibition, construction company Galliford Try (originally involved in the creation of the gallery spaces at Palace Green Library, as well as Durham University’s Teaching and Learning Centre) carried out some 3D photography in the building, allowing us to share the experience of the gallery with digital visitors far and wide. This proved to be incredibly well-timed with lockdown measures introduced soon after and Palace Green Library closing to the public.
Museums, galleries and libraries have not always been the best, or quickest, at adopting new technologies, with issues of cost and confidence often standing in the way, but it is hugely encouraging to see more institutions around the world pushing their digital boundaries, opening up their collections and exhibitions to vast new audiences. At this moment in time, when it is so hard to predict when museums and galleries will be able to open their doors again, technology like this allows us to get our cultural fix and become inspired.
For me, revisiting the Sketchbooks exhibition from home is a strange but comforting experience. Although it now feels like forever since I set foot in the gallery, lockdown has offered a rare chance to reflect on a past exhibition and feel renewed and excited for what comes next. I encourage you all to embark on this virtual gallery tour and enjoy stepping out of your home and back in time to mid-20th Century County Durham. Just try not to dwell too long on the drawings and paintings of the pub; it might make you thirsty!
Details of upcoming exhibitions at Palace Green Library can be found here: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/exhibitions/future/ .