Three years ago a good old-fashioned letter embossed with the gold monogram ‘E.R.’ arrived on my desk, writes Kim Streets, CEO of Museums Sheffield
Museums Sheffield, along with 11 other UK museums, were invited to take part in a simultaneous series of exhibitions of work from the Royal Collection celebrating the life of Leonardo da Vinci, 500 years after his death.
The Royal Collection is held in trust for the nation; one of the last European art collections to remain intact and one of the largest in the world.
It was an opportunity not to be passed over; we were delighted to say yes.
Fast forward to 2019 and the drawings are currently on display in the Millennium Gallery. Since opening on February 1, the exhibition has been seen by an incredible 81,000 visitors.
Yet, somehow ‘seeing’ doesn’t seem to do the experience justice. Having had the pleasure of watching people slow down and really lose themselves in each drawing, it feels more accurate to say that visitors have witnessed the hand and eye of a master.
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The crux of it is simple – people have been amazed that the drawings are real, and that they get to see them here, in Sheffield.
I am guilty of overusing words like ‘wonder’ and ‘delight’ to describe how visitors have engaged with the drawings. I should probably apologise for overusing the term ‘fascination’ too, but it’s just the right word.
Leonardo’s fascination with understanding his world through thinking and seeing is contagious – looking at his drawings you can’t help but feel it too.
One visitor described it best as ‘an extraordinary, deeply moving experience to be in the presence of genius.’
That’s why I love working in museums – to care for great art and history and to create moments where people can discover the past, be drawn into new worlds and imagine what their future might look like – there’s nothing quite like it.
Our sense of wonder, delight and fascination finds itself in different places, yet through Leonardo’s drawings we encounter a world-view and a humanity that is impossible to ignore.
Over half a millennium ago, a pencil confidently moving across paper marked one person’s view of the world, there is still much to learn from his curiosity. People’s responses to Leonardo’s drawings remind me of what we lose if we forget, even for a moment, what we can learn from our history.
Blurring the boundaries between art and science, Leonardo has brought many visitors into the gallery for the first time. One of Leonardo’s greatest gifts is that he shows us just how important creative skills such as drawing are.
His drawings reflect the breadth of his understanding and ability, demonstrating how he applied his knowledge and skill through art, design and science – ultimately, they’ve offered a pathway into all kinds of learning.
We’ve seen Year Five students from Woodthorpe Community Primary explore different ways of illustrating the flow of water and work with people in a nearby care home to draw Sheffield’s rivers as part of their geography project.
Inspired by Leonardo’s architectural artworks, young adults supported by Depaul, (the charity that helps people who are homeless), worked with local artist, Jonathan Wilkinson to explore the city’s landscape and the buildings that are important to them.
And what have we learnt from this exhibition? Well, firstly, that it’s vital that we are able to experience great art on our own doorstep.
I don’t know how many of our visitors are in a position to travel to London to see an exhibition, or how many have toured the UK to see the other 11 Leonardo exhibitions, but I’m confident that many people got to experience these works because they were in their city.
Secondly, seeing great works of art first-hand can be a genuinely transformative experience. And finally, that great art can be a springboard for so much more – Leonardo-inspired sessions for under 5s, school holiday activities, a brilliant programme of talks from academics at the University of Sheffield and more, our upcoming Leonardo’s Workshop interactive after hours event on April 26, not to mention Universal Everything’s brilliant digital installation in response to Leonardo’s ideas.
If you’ve not visited, or you’d like to pop in for one last look, now’s your chance.
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing continues at the Millennium Gallery until Monday May 6. Entry to the exhibition is free.