Bob and Roberta Smith: Why I love museums

The artist describes how museums can forge connections between generations, and pledges his support for the I Love Museums campaign.

The first museum I visited was the National Railway Museum. In the early 1960s the museum was located in a tramshed in Clapham. It was not until the 1970s that it moved to York. That first visit had a huge effect on me. I am still obsessed with the bright liveries and hand-painted fonts of Edwardian railway companies. Trains are huge sculptural objects with a physical power only rivalled by artists like Henry Moore and Elisabeth Frink.

I grew up in south London. I had a rather unique childhood because both my parents were artists. Now it is commonplace to take your kids to art galleries and museums, but this revolution in the numbers accessing our great galleries is a relatively recent phenomenon. My father, who insisted on spending hours in front of his favourite Claude Lorrain landscape in the National Gallery, making painstaking transcriptions of it, was an unwitting pioneer in introducing his children to the art of the past. We would wander through the galleries discovering art history and a library of images and ideas that would impress on anyone that human beings have extraordinary imaginations and stories to tell. In those days paintings stayed in the same place from decade to decade, and far fewer people visited them. Now galleries have vibrant learning programmes and the displays are frequently altered to create new stories of art that question our preconceptions. So much has improved and developed, and now the public see works of art in our public museums as an important part of our national life.

“Museums are not about the past, but about the future”

  • Bob and Roberta Smith

In the 1960s my father was invited to contribute to a series of essays inviting artists to write about their favourite painting. My dad wrote about Turner’s Peace – Burial at Sea, part of the Tate collection. While walking through the galleries on an almost weekly pilgrimage to Turner's touching tribute to his friend David Wilkie, I discovered modern art. Naum Gabo, Elisabeth Frink, Jacob Epstein, Bridget Riley, Peter Blake and Henry Moore impressed upon me that museums are not about the past, but about the future. Museums more than ever seek to shape and inform our imaginations and show us not just how wonderful and inventive we are, but ask us to be all we can be. Free admission and the sense that our public collections are ours, and that culture is a fluid thing all of us can contribute to, are things we must defend. Please support the I Love Museums effort.

Museums are also places for reflection. I have been wondering at the amazing 1930s design of Nigel Gresley's Mallard train [pictured, above] since I was seven years old. Much like my father I have attempted to imprint on my son, Fergal, a love of trains and art. I hope when he gets older he will visit paintings and objects in museums, and see that through the art of the past you can fall in love with artists and makers across many generations.

I Love Museums is a campaign led by the National Museums Directors Council (NMDC) to demonstrate the depth of support for UK museums by empowering the public to share why museums are important to them. Show your support to keep our museums alive. Sign the petition, upload a photo or tweet about why you love museums.

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