Banksy vs Bristol Museum

2009-09-08, Comments

When I moved to Bristol, almost 15 years ago, I hadn’t heard of Banksy. But I soon spotted where he’d been. Those small stencilled designs, black on concrete, his blocky cutout signature. Spray-and-go pictures of rats, chimps, policemen, weapons. The elephant with missiles strapped to its back was my favourite.

Heavy weaponry

Vandalism? Possibly; but I always liked finding one. They made me smile, like walking through an urban cartoon strip. Over the years most of those designs have been cleaned off, painted over, overwritten; others have simply faded away. In their place, the street artists have taken over. The showpiece outdoor collection changes every day in Stokes Croft.

Does Banksy still visit Bristol?

15 years on, the answer is yes.

Banksy, now an internationally famous artist, returned. For two days at the start of June the city museum was closed for cleaning — so staff and public were told. Actually the elusive artist and his team were inside transforming the permanent collection into a Banksy installation. I haven’t figured out how they smuggled in the burned-out ice-cream van, which looked too big to fit through any of the doors. Then there were a dozen amusingly adapted plaster statues, any number of hacked canvasses, a grotesque collection of tanks, cages and coops for rearing processed food.

National news covered the show’s opening. Relax, they said, it’s on for three months. As it turned out the first few weeks were the best times to get in. By August the queue filled University Road and had a waiting time of at least three hours.

Banksy vs Bristol Museum? No contest.

The show overwhelmed the museum, effectively closing it to lovers of Bristol glass, old maps and taxidermy; families couldn’t just drop in for some crayoning on a wet Sunday afternoon. For a 12 week period the city hosted the international Banksy museum of graffiti. Yet this same exhibition would have failed in the Arnolfini, Bristol’s official contemporary art gallery. Banksy’s work is commentary and reaction, and Bristol museum has much to poke fun at. For me, the best pieces were those specific to the museum collection: the wheel-clamped gypsy caravan, an eviction order taped to its window, the turd-filled ice-cream cones in the ceramics gallery, credited to “local artist”. If you tuned out the crowds and wandered through one of the outermost galleries you could almost imagine there was no show but, unbeknownst to the authorities, some prankster had infiltrated the room and tampered with the displays.

My children loved the show. They liked the cheeky jokes. They enjoyed the occasion. I wouldn’t have missed it but I can’t help thinking it wasn’t as big as it became. Some of the more generic works were overblown and unfunny. Banksy’s pictures indoors, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the exhibition room, fall flat.

Tired and hungry, we gathered by the exit doors in the main hall. But Alex’s usual museum routine includes the local wildlife gallery and he wanted a look round. We followed after him. He pressed the buttons around the relief map of the Severn estuary and lit up sites of special scientific interest. He looked over the seal’s shoulder and out to sea. Yes, said Gail, that is a poisonous adder, like the one daddy went after at the camp site. A river bank tableau, a heron waiting in the shallows. Below, a water vole stands on its hindlegs, wearing goggles and a backpack, an aerosol at its feet.

Vole

Ooh, I think that’s a Banksy!

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My thanks to i_y_e_r_s for letting me include his water vole photo, and to @bristolurbanart for locating a surviving copy of my favourite Banksy.