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Off-Campus: Suspension of Disbelief

In this weekly feature, we will share our ideas for what you can do “off-campus” while the museum is closed. Today’s post comes from Nicole M. Roylance, Coordinator of Public Education and Information.

A very fictional scene from Masterpiece's Framed.

I wonder if police officers enjoy watching Law & Order or if doctors are able to get lost in an episode of House. There are few depictions of the museum profession on television or in the movies, but when the museum world is fictionalized I often find myself, to the annoyance of my companions, shouting at the screen because of factual errors. I need to be reminded that whatever I am watching is only a movie or a television show created for entertainment purposes.
Over the holidays, PBS Masterpiece aired Framed, an adaption of the young adult novel by Frank Cottrell Boyce. The film begins at the National Gallery in London with a stereotypical museum curator leading a tour to schoolchildren. He is detached. He wears black. He is filled with boring facts. He longs to be alone with his books and paintings. We soon learn that the museum is in desperate need of repair and will have to close to the public. It is decided to relocate the collection to the same small Welsh town that housed the National Gallery collection during World War II. Framed continues with the imaginary tale of the paintings return to the small Welsh town of Blaenau Ffestiniog and the connections that form between the townspeople, the collection, and the increasingly lovable curator. I feel obligated to tell you some of the things I shouted at the television: curators do not drive truckloads of paintings on mountain roads, they do not uncrate paintings to decorate their candlelight dinners, and they would not lend a Monet to a butcher to keep above his counter. I know, it’s a movie.
Paintings from the National Gallery lining the walls of Manod quarry in 1941. Photo: Richard Meirion Jones

Although the twenty-first century renovation and relocation is fictional, the removal of the significant portion of the National Gallery collection from London to an abandoned slate quarry during World War II is a true story. At the beginning of the war, portions of the collection had been relocated to private country homes for safekeeping. As the war escalated and it was feared that London would be invaded by the Nazis, Prime Minister Churchill requested a more secure location for the priceless collection: “Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island.”
The massive size of Van Dyck’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles I presented a challenge when it was relocated to Wales.

In mid-September 1940, the Manod quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog was chosen as the secret hiding place for the collection. 5,000 tons of rock was removed to allow the paintings to be moved into the caves. Hygrometers were installed to measure the temperature and humidity. Towards the end of the war, once a month one painting was temporarily transported back to London from Wales and exhibited for the public. Some accounts hold that 45,000 people came to look at Titian’s Noli Me Tangere.
Boyce was inspired to write Framed because he began to imagine what an art collection could mean to a community- either Londoners during the war or small town residents today. Despite the numerous inaccuracies that caused me to annoy and distract my family while we watched this movie, I appreciated Boyce’s effort to demonstrate the value of art in a community. You can still watch Framed on the PBS website. Remember though- it’s just a movie.

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