Tunnelling Through Time
Nearly 200 years ago, Marc Brunel and his son Isambard built the first working tunnel beneath the River Thames. Today, a former engine house in Rotherhithe houses one of London’s lesser-known cultural venues, the Brunel Museum, busy reinventing itself as it heads towards the tunnel’s bicentenary.
Finding new digital audiences for a small museum isn’t easy, but Tunnelling Through Time, an escape room based on the tunnel’s history, might help. Museum escape rooms have been booming in recent years, including online. Using a screen-sharing platform, you and a team of pals can join up to solve a series of puzzles and escape the game.
Actress Charlie Bond is engaging as the protagonist Joey Beamish, an IT engineer accidentally hurled back through time to the 1820s: you help her solve a series of puzzles (from arranging a seating plan for a subterranean banquet to dealing with a catastrophic flood) so that she can return to the present.
It’s an enjoyable ride, and the video and interactives hold attention for the 90 minutes or so that it takes to play, and there are copious hints within the game if you’re stuck. As a museum game, it works on its own terms, as it should, but it did leave me wondering whether I could have learned more about the history of the tunnel itself.
Perhaps more even than the Parthenon Frieze, the looted and stolen objects popularly known as the Benin Bronzes have come to represent the problem of museums holding what they shouldn’t. These cultural treasures were taken from their homeland, in what is now Edo State, Nigeria, by the British military’s punitive Benin Expedition of 1897, and in the ensuing century and a quarter they were sold to museums and private collectors around the world.
While repatriation efforts are gaining momentum, many of the objects remain in far-flung corners of the globe.
In the meantime, Digital Benin offers a virtual restoration of lots of the objects as a single collection, bringing together cataloguing data and images from more than 100 museums and collections.
The site begins by categorising and describing this virtual collection, not according to western ethnographic categories, but by giving the objects their correct Edo designations and descriptions. You can explore in many different ways, not only by the institutions that hold the objects but also by provenance, specifically the private individuals and colonial administrators who stole objects before passing them on to museums and collectors.
Perhaps the most dramatic presentation is the map that allows you to zoom out from Benin City, showing how Benin objects are now found across the world from the US to New Zealand.
It feels more like a research resource than an engagement platform, but even if you approach it with little or no knowledge of Benin, there’s plenty to help you here, from pronunciation widgets to colouring sheets.
The English-language interpretation is elegantly presented and well-written. It may be years before this virtual collection is reunited physically, but this feels like a significant step along the way.
Fragonard’s The Swing
Can you learn to love a painting? Personally, I hate rococo art, but if I knew more could I better appreciate it? The Wallace Collection has had a go at helping me via its mini-website about the 2021 restoration of Fragonard’s 1767 painting The Swing.
Text, video and pictures explain how Fragonard abandoned academic painting for lucrative private commissions in the fervid last years before the French revolution. A slider app shows the painting before and after restoration.
It didn’t make me love The Swing but, at the risk of sounding like a fogey, when art sometimes feels like an endless flow of new images, it’s good to spend some time thinking about one painting.
Danny Birchall is digital content manager at the Wellcome Collection