On Saturday I decided to visit the Tate Modern, as I had stumbled upon the fact that they now have a mobile app giving audio tours around the place, as well as other features that tell you more about the art on display, the activities on offer and where to eat and go shopping.
The last time I visited the Tate Modern was as a kid with my family, which I don’t remember clearly now of course (but I did record a bit of video footage at the time). So it’s been on my list of places to explore since I moved to the city, and this was a good opportunity.
The building is very distinctive and easy to spot thanks to its huge chimney, as it was once a power station. It’s 2 buildings in fact – the Boiler House and the Blavatnik Building, with the massive Turbine Hall in the centre. The Turbine Hall plays host to a variety of different installations, each of which stays there for a period of time. And at the moment they have something called One Two Three Swing! by Dutch art collective Superflex. I’ve posted a video of it on my channel.
There are a few elements that make up this installation. The big slope leading down into the hall is covered with a multi-coloured striped carpet, using the same colours as British banknotes apparently, and people are encouraged to sit and lay down on it, so you have to be careful not to fall over them. And directly overhead is a huge metal ball that’s swinging back and forth like a pendulum.
Then, at the bottom of the slope, and extending the rest of the way down the long Turbine Hall, are a series of swings hanging down from orange metal poles, with the seat on each swing capable of holding 3 people. And people are encouraged to have a go on these too, which many were doing, especially children.
So the whole thing is very effective at grabbing your attention, and looks pretty cool. Granted, you have to be very careful walking through it all when you can’t see properly – sticking to the edges of the space is safest, but there are clear paths through it as well, once you’ve taken a moment or two to figure them out.
While I was in the Turbine Hall, I started listening to the Building Tour on their app, which talks about the history and architecture of the gallery as a whole, so it doesn’t focus on specific artworks. It’s very nicely put together too, with pages you swipe through as you progress. Each stop on the tour has audio that is very interesting to listen to, with a photo representing the area in (either a current view to help you orientate yourself, or an historical image of how it used to look). And in between each stop, there are very clear directions as to where to head next, which was really useful.
So the first half of the tour takes place in the Turbine Hall, given its significance, before taking you to the Tanks area nearby for a brief stop. And then it takes you all the way up to Level 10 to look at the view from the top of the building. You can take the lift up there of course – and the lifts throughout the building are really easy to spot, which is great. The toilets are easy to find as well, it must be said. The signage on the walls tended to be big and clear, with good contrast to make it stand out, which I liked. But anyway, I decided to be brave and use the stairs, because I haven’t had enough exercise since Christmas yet!
It is a long way up, and my legs were tired at the top, but only for a few moments. And it’s worth the effort, because the view you get of the city as a reward is amazing. At the front of the building in particular, you get Blackfriars Bridge on the left, St Paul’s Cathedral in the middle, with the Millennium Bridge just along the river from it, and then The Shard to the right if you go around the side. In fact, you can walk all the way around the perimeter for a complete 360-degree view. And the tour on the app has an audio track that takes you all the way around, pointing out some key sights, which is fun. I recorded some video up there too.
Then I decided to do the Highlights Tour, which takes you around a few of the key artworks in some of the galleries. Obviously they have thousands of objects, and here they only show you 11, but as you have to walk through the galleries to find them, you get to see lots of other things along the way. So it’s very effective at giving you a good tour of the space, giving you a feel for what’s on offer. And the audio accompanying each of the chosen artworks is really interesting to listen to. So it definitely makes me want to go back and explore the galleries in more detail, having had a teasing glimpse of what they offer.
Again, in terms of navigation, it was very easy to follow the directions on the tour, as they were very clear, and the titles of each gallery are big and clear on the walls too. I don’t know if they do large print guides for each gallery though. I didn’t spot any when I was walking around. But a quick search on Google suggests you can download PDFs of the large print guides for a few galleries, which is useful. Failing that, though, I am able to read the labels with my monocular if I want to. Or it is possible to use a text to speech mobile app like Seeing AI, which I tried briefly here out of curiosity, and it worked very well. I’ve only just started playing around with that app, having seen other people raving about it for a while now, but it strikes me that it could be useful for situations like that.
The one thing I found that I had to be careful of was the barriers around free-standing artworks, because I could never spot them very easily. There are very small poles on the floor surrounding those artworks, which are widely spaced out and hard to see, and they’re holding up a piece of string that’s so thin I can’t see it at all, and can barely feel it when I brush against it, as it’s both thin and somewhat slack, so it bends inwards when you touch it. So it was difficult to know if I was getting too close to something.
Once I’d realised those lengths of string were there, I was more careful in trying to look out for them – or looking for the poles holding them up at least. But it would be better if the string was a bit thicker and with a clearer colour contrast to the floor. I know they don’t want to detract from the artworks, hence making the barriers as unobtrusive and invisible as possible. But I don’t want to damage anything by walking through the strings or tripping over the poles. So there’s a balance to be reached somewhere perhaps.
That aside though, I really enjoyed it, and I do intend to go back and look at the galleries in more detail. There is a real variety of stuff in there – some beautiful, some thought provoking, and some very strange, and it’s all interesting in its own way. Even if you think an artwork looks weird, unattractive or dull – which can be the case for any kind of art, historical or modern, depending on your opinions – then hearing the story behind its creation can still be good.
I know they do access tours as well, including Audio Described and British Sign Language tours, which you can find by searching for their access tours on their website. But I haven’t had a chance to go on one of the audio described tours yet, as they’ve tended to be during the week when I’m working, and I can’t have days off for everything I want to do. But I will try and do one of the tours soon, as I know it would be very enjoyable.
On Sunday I then went back to the Victoria & Albert Museum, looking around rooms 5 & 6 of their Europe exhibition, using their large print books and the audio guide on their website. And that was all very interesting too, with lots of beautiful things on display. I’m not going to write about it in detail though, as I wrote a blog post about my first visit to the exhibition back in December, so check that out if you want to know more. I’ll only need write a longer post when I go to a new exhibition in there. I have posted a few photos from my latest visit on Instagram though.
So I had another lovely weekend looking around a couple of museums, which are the perfect activity to do on these cold, wet, wintry days. I’ll do more walks out and about as the weather improves, of course, but you’re likely to hear about more museums over the next few weeks. One is already planned for definite, but there’s plenty of choice for others I can check out too. It’s just a case of deciding which one to visit next!