Yinka at Greenwich

'Yinka Shonibare MBE at Greenwich' opened a week ago.  In this cross-site installation, we have invited Yinka to infiltrate our collections with a body of work that explores Britain’s seafaring, stargazing and imperial past.

Seeing visitors enjoying the installation is a special moment for all the people who worked really hard on this project.  The two weeks leading up to the opening were very busy indeed for the Museum’s ‘Team Yinka’, as staff from departments as varied as Design, Conservation, Arts & Objects Handling, Collections Management and Press rallied for the finish line.

In this post, I share some of the behind-the-scenes highlights from the final fortnight.

As I wrote in an earlier blog entry, in the Queen’s House, Yinka has selected a group of objects from the National Maritime Museum’s collection related to Lord Nelson’s life, loves and fame, to show alongside his own work on the Vice-Admiral. The first week of the installation was devoted to the museum’s objects, preparing the space for Yinka’s own wonderful pieces.

Installation periods can be quite intense, as all are focused on getting everything perfect and right.  But intensity does not mean cheerlessness! Ray and Tony, from art-handing company MOMART, whose help we enlisted to support our Art & Object handling team who are busy with multiple projects (not the least out new 'Nelson, Navy Nation' gallery, opening on 21 October), clearly enjoyed working with us: by the end of the second week they had truly bonded with our own team.

Even if you know where the objects are going to fit before the installation starts, there are always a few last minute adjustments: you only get to see if things ‘look right’ once they are all in the space together, ready to hang.

In the room dedicated to Nelson’s fame, a subtle arrangement of caricatures suggests the jumble and business of a nineteenth-century print shop. I tried the patience of everyone, designers and Art & Objects handlers alike, as I made them adjust the objects by half an inch here and there.

A room about Nelson’s loves reunites the naval commander with his estranged wife Frances ‘Fanny’ Nelson, his mistress Emma Hamilton and their illegitimate daughter Horatia. We pondered over the trio of Fanny, Emma and Nelson, before mischievously positioning wife and husband peering together at the beautiful actress, Emma.

After the space was prepared with the museum’s own collection, the second week of installation was devoted to Yinka Shonibare’s work, overseen by his studio assistant, Ailbhe.

First thing on the Monday morning, our paper conservator Elisabeth, checked the condition of Yinka’s five Fake Death Pictures as they were being unpacked in the galleries. Museum staff do things with style: note how Elisabeth’s stockings match Nelson’s own in the Dutch-wax uniform he sports in Yinka’s take on Alenza y Nieto’s 'Satire on Romantic Suicide'.

The team then proceeded to hang the Fake Death Picture series among the museum’s superlative collection of Nelsonic paintings.

Next up were 'Nelson’s Jacket' and 'Fanny’s Dress', the striking sculptural installations representing Nelson and his wife.

Nelson’s Jacket is inspired by the uniform Nelson was wearing when he was fatally shot at the battle of Trafalgar. Beautifully detailed and complete with the emblems that Nelson wore on his breast that day, it is almost identical to the uniform, aside from the fact that it is made with Yinka’s trademark Dutch-wax fabric and that, of course, there is no bullet-hole.

Ailbhe made sure that every detail was perfect, before we got ready to close the beautiful antiquarian vitrine in which it is housed.

Dressed in flamboyant Dutch-wax, Fanny is now staring at her husband across the parlours and Great Hall of the Queen’s House, where their emotional divide is being re-enacted.

At the Royal Observatory, we installed Yinka’s very latest commission, 'Cheeky Little Astronomer'. This playful work reminds us that Flamsteed House used to be the home of the Astronomer Royal, with children growing cheek-by-jowl with astronomical instruments. Like the other figures in Yinka's 'Planets in my Head' series, the head of 'Cheeky Little Astronomer' is made of a celestial globe, which came in its own specially-designed box.

Once each artwork found its rightful place in the galleries, the team put on the finishing touches, installing labels, touching up the paint, wiping fingerprints off glass cases or adjusting the lighting for dramatic effect.

But the cherry on the cake was the installation of the monumental 'Wind Sculpture'. This solid piece of Dutch-wax fabric, caught as it takes flight, now stands grandiosely on the grounds of the Queen’s House. On the day the exhibition opened, even the sky was celebrating its arrival, with a rainbow in the same colours as the sculpture.

The exhibition is now open, and we have an exciting programme of events for all ages, including curator tours of the Queen’s House galleries, and Yinka in conversation with the Museum’s Head of Arts, Christine Riding, in December.

Check out our What’s On for more details, and Twitter for more pictures and updates, #YinkaGreenwich

- Melanie