Somerset House

887 Reviews

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Review type

Things to do


Date of travel

June, 2021

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Having worked in Somerset House for some years whilst with the Inland Revenue, and also skated on its iconic ice rink, I was excited to see that in June, the courtyard was to be transformed into a forest as part of the “London Design Biennale”: I read that this was said to be a radical move as, when the Georgians rebuilt the place in the late 18th century, there were strict instructions that there should be “no trees, no plants, no landscapes” – something I’d not really noticed before despite being very familiar with the building and its surrounds.

I thought that the tickets were expensive at £16 (with my oldie concession). It was only when I was preparing for our visit, that I realised they included access to the Biennale. Arriving for our slot at the opening time of 11am, we were advised to visit the galleries first followed by the trees [the last entrants of the day are advised to do the opposite]. I then realised I could have visited the trees for free and felt slightly miffed.

Although the trees are relatively impressive bearing in mind the cobbles underneath, they were not as tall as I’d anticipated from the photograph I’d seen in the Sunday Times: obviously very clever photography skills. Bird song was amplified through speakers, but there was a general lack of information about the trees, although some had numbered stones at the bases. I later read there were 400 trees from 27 different species. A clearing just before the exit had multi-coloured pillars each with one of the United Nation’s 17 Global Goals e.g. decent work and growth, affordable clean energy.

Leaving the trees behind, we headed for the three galleries, starting with the East wing. Tickets are timed and you have two hours to visit so we were given a sticky badge bearing 11am. The one-way only route was Covid friendly with hand sanitizers placed at strategic points. The theme of the Biennale was “resonances” and the individual rooms had displays from over 25 diverse countries ranging from Venezuela to Greece.

Some were interesting, others difficult to understand and some were quirky.
The first room had an exhibit from Germany titled “Spoon Archaeology” with display boxes of plastic spoons. The information board told us that when single use plastic cutlery is banned, these will become antiques of the future.

Other exhibits that caught our eye were:

The display from Latvia had a three-sided booth with a lady sat at her desk with her back to visitors. On the other side of the booth was an earpiece saying, “speak here” and we were told we could ask any question. I asked, “how long have you been sitting here”. The sign changed to “please wait” and then a draw opened delivering a card with the answer “it was a mystery to me, because I still don’t know anything”.

Another room had a large silver colored tent called an empathy room. The idea was that two strangers went into the tent for 15 minutes and chatted to each other.

The Taiwan exhibition had lots of lights in rows which came on and off and were apparently controlled by swinging pendulums in the room.

As well as viewing the exhibits, I simply enjoyed wandering in and out of the various rooms with their original numbers over the doors, trying to remember who had sat in them in my working days. The building itself is fantastic with beautiful cornices and fireplaces. We also saw the magnificent open, circular Nelson Staircase which soars dramatically over 6 floors providing access from the basement to the third floor.

The Chilean exhibition was something to do with tectonic resonances with various lumps of rock being hung with a gong which you were encouraged to use.

Some of the exhibits were quite complex with lots of reading and videos which as it was a very hot day we skipped through. We spent an hour inside, but it would have been easier to spend the allocated time there. However, lunchtime beckoned and we headed for a restorative pint of cider in the nearby Marquess of Anglesey.

Helen Jackson

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