30 March 2011
Wonderland is a strange and shifting place. It's a place of oddity, of difference, differance, of illogical logic and curious expressions. The museum is such a wonderland. It can be a place of make-beleive, of magic - it can be curious and cohesive, silly and scholarly, and in accepting its strangeness, whole new worlds of meaning can be figured and reformed. We've enjoyed travelling through this world with you, and we hope you've enjoyed travelling with us too. But, for the moment, we're signing off.
With bounces, jumps and tea, Museobunny sends you all his best regards. He hopes that the ephemeral Wonderland we've made will continue, even if in an altered form. So please, keep talking - and keep on hopping!
Birmingham is one of the largest council run museum services in the UK, in the hugely diverse Second City. An exhibition, two years ago, in the Central Libaray pointed to a lack of LGBT representation in the city. From this developed Gay Birmingham Remembered and the Shout! Festival, now strong elements in the city's life.
The collection of BMAG is broad, and has a stong collection of applied arts - unsurprising in a city once called the 'Toyshop of Europe.' It emphasizes diversity in its programmes and operations, but you might argue that there is a significant lack of representation of LGBT culture. So Matt approached the museum through Shout's co-ordinator, and they began to plan how the museum could work to produce 'Queering the Museum.'
They had to have a rationale, a justification for doing this, to make sure that it integrated with their existing work, helped the museum moved forward, and didn't appear tokenistic. What, too, is the value between blurring the boundaries between the museum itself, and the way it is interpreted?
There is certainly a value in looking at collections with new eyes, particularly when they haven't, like the BMAG ceramics collection, been redisplayed for a number of years. Matt proposed a number of possibilities for this interaction of art and museum space, and certain of these had to be treated with a distinct amount of sensitivity. As a Council Museum, they have to balance a number of competing desires and agendas. A display relating to the sexuality of Cardinal Newman, particularly around the time of the Papel visit, was particularly sensitive and had to be dropped.
However, trying to push the creative agenda in museums is often more difficult than you might think. For museums, traditionally, are not spaces which are often all that creative, though creative activities might occur within their walls. But by engaging with Shout, and other arts organizations, and acting as a mediator between these groups and the museum, Matt managed to create nineteen interventions within the museum space. As a museological person himself, it was really important that he engaged fully with the collection. He was able, as a new gaze, to act as a 'Queer eye' on the museum's collections, and rather than develop a queer exhibition, they decided to queer the whole museum.
Queer can be used as an inclusive term, a term currently reappropriated by the LGBT community. It also overlaps with the uncanny, associated with anything outside the norm, slightly sidelined or odd. It has in the past been used pejoratively, but the idea of queering the museum was to engage with both negative and positive elements of representing lgbt culture, and to extend the existing representation that was (or was not) already there.
When we 'queer' something, we make it strange, odd, peculiar. By queering the Round Room, a space hung in a classic academy style, the space becomes uncanny and strange. But in a way it already was, for in the transgressive figure of Lucifer, modelled with the face of a woman and a body of a man is situated directly at the centre. Perhaps the least subtle part of this whole intervention was the draping of the figure in green carnations, which appeared throughout the museum signifying the 'queer trail.'
The stories which the intervention was able to tell were both comical, lighthearted and tragic. The figure of Simeon Solomon, the museum's only expression of homosexual culture prior to the project, is a very sad tale indeed. By juxtaposing him with the figure of Lord Leighton, who perhaps had very similar lives, the different appropriations of stories related to gender and sexuality become apparent.
Coupling and balance also played a role, for the placing of objects in direct relation to each other reflects a particular kind of narrative within museum space. What happens when the physical relationships between objects are changed, and removed, and what are the meanings (re)created in the space inbetween. Comment upon art history also makes itself apparent in Jakes Progress, which relates to Birmingham's huge collection of tiles, but which also comments upon Hogarth's Rake's Progress.
Galley 33, a gallery of diversity of which the museum was incredibly proud, actually engaged very little with LGBT representation. By placing a civil partnership card within the space, it manifests an acknowledgement of this culture from another element of the institution. Thus the display activity of the museum itself becomes legitimated by its relationship to changing legality and authority.
Polari, a secret language of the LGBT community, is an interesting expression of subversion which the project uses in the museum space through figures representing various expressions within it. In placing these figures here, the polyvocality of the museum space and its ability to subvert standard conventions from within authoritarian structures themselves.
What was the purpose of this intervention? You wouldn't 'Straighten' the museum or mention if an artist is straight. But there's a certain politics which need to be recognised, for there are implict dialogues in museum texts which express heterosexual relationships - children and marriages - whilst homosexual relationships are whitewashed. Homophobic bullying is on the rise, negative portrayal in the media still continues, and LGBT individuals are taxpayers too, and have a right to be represented in the institutions to which they contribute.
In cutting across subjects, object groupings and collections, it became apparent that there was a freedom possible for interacting with museum institutions and interpretation. During collection, the polyvocality of objects should be retained as much as possible, in order that in the future, their meanings are able to mutate and change.
38% of the visitors to the installations identified themselves as gay, and 74% overall considered it an appropriate, and positive use of BMAG, its collections and its space. A large proportion of the through the door visitors engaged with the intervention, largely because the significant figure of Lucifer. Out of a hundred and fourty thousand visitors, there were only four negative comments. There is, it seems, a contract of authority and trust which museums sign with the visitor, and when these are perceived to be violated, that is where the problem arises. Homosexuality is a subject which still presents difficulties of social acceptance in a way that racial and feminist issues are not.
This intervention has changed the museum, providing a model for the museum's activities in the future and opening up the staff to discussions around difficult or underrepresented subjects. It became clear that the staff of BMAG are very open, very liberal, very inclusive people. It created a space in which same sex couples could hold hands - a charming, but little seen expression of love embedded in the heart of Birmingham's cultural life.
Such interventions are risky ventures, particularly in a climate which is economically unstable. There is a tendancy to conform in such environments - but this conformity is, itself, a risk. One of the things which this conference aimed to do was to create a space in which those risks can be taken, to make it plain that taking the risk, whether it results in success or spectacular failure, is always worth it. For everyone feels non-normative at times, and if you don't accept that, don't jump, you don't progress. If you don't fall down the Rabbit Hole once in a while, if you don't allow yourselves to see the world through other, queerer, more curious eyes, you don't allow yourselves to grow.
Following is a sendspace link to their complete article:
The Intangible Heritage of Iran
Here is the abstract:
As museums tend to pass from an object oriented era to a subject oriented one, intangible heritage comes to be a theme for many programmers to explore; museum managers began collecting theories about subjective programs and introduced them. Iran is a country of prolonged history and an integrated diverse culture. It is this diversity which brings up new concerns and questions for cultural programmers. Some of these concerns are:
- People’s lack of familiarity with various tribes’ cultural treasure or existing rituals at different regions of Iran,
- Young generation’s reluctance to acknowledge intangible heritage due to unfamiliarity,
- Creating diversity and more social interaction at museums while using intangible heritage to entertain visitors.
These concerns partly attracted managers’ attention within last recent years. Therefore museums took advantage of such change of trend to incorporate cultural objectives. Our efforts in this article are to introduce a set of executed programs in fields of marketing and interpretation of intangible heritage at museum-palace of Niavaran, Tehran. Design, executive methods and influence of each of these programs can encourage dynamism and create job opportunities at museums.
1- Arash-Khaani: Arash is the name of a mythical Iranian character, an archer who saves the country using his art of archery. This symbolic character has been subject of many poems and artworks in Iran. In this program we created a remarkable entertaining atmosphere to narrate and display myth using several local artists, ritual combat performers and celebrities as well as collecting combat ritual records. Objective(s): identifying local performing groups, nurturing national union, creating a fusion of arts to vitalize and entertain the audience
2- Mahdismaa, is a symbolic fairy creature among people of south and west of Iran. This myth was an inspiration to plan a performance using two groups from two different tribes who reconstructed marriage and funeral rituals and celebration traditions to offer a festive combination of legends, rituals and music, performed by historical buildings of the museum.
3- Siavushaan, Shahnameh is the most significant mythical book to Iranians, of which many tales are of vital influence in Iranian national culture and among Iranian tribes. During years, there have appeared many narrative forms among each tribe to tell these tales. One of them is a story of a hero in Shahnameh called “Siavush”, known as Siavushaan. The tradition was to narrate the story in terms of a combination of Iranian ancient athletic performance and music. a traditional setting along with an Iranian feast was provided as well.
4- Soorgaani festival is a collection of rituals themed about joy and merry- making. This festival was held at international tourist day with 30 groups performing music and dance at Niavaran museum-palace.
As a result, Niavaran museum-palace now is a place to hold ritual/musical shows from all around the country, especially Tehran. It is a permanent cultural center at which major concerts are taking place.
[As this research is rather new, nascent, in development, as it were, we're going to blog the abstract, rather than the response to it, at the request of Katherinne. It's interesting and fun research - and I hope we'll make sure that she continues with it!]
This presentation explores the growing trend of haunted houses coordinated by American museums and historic sites, particularly around Halloween. While these events may attract new and diverse audiences to historic sites, they also represent a departure from strictly educational programming. They tend instead toward sensationalism and legend. Sometimes they involve violent or taboo subject matter and are explicitly recommended for adults or older youth only.
How did haunted houses, along with ghost tours and paranormal investigations, become so popular? What value do they have for visitors and for historic sites? What lessons can museum professionals draw from them?
The author is now researching the origins and appeal of haunted houses at historic sites. Her hypothesis is that these macabre events fill a void in the cultural landscape. Because they take place at historic sites, they offer “authentic” experiences, in contrast to mediated or virtual entertainments. They give visitors a sense of active exploration and discovery, in contrast to the usual guided tours. And in a society that increasingly turns away from death, they encourage visitors to confront their own mortality, if only for an evening.
Yet haunted houses are not put on without peril. For example, fictionalized haunt narratives may leave visitors with the wrong impression of a site's true history and conflict with the education-based mission of most historical institutions. How have certain organizations succeeded in the balancing act? And what are the potential pitfalls?
People leave traces - we dispose of things, loose things - but they have to go somewhere. Cemetaries, like museums, are such places. We leave items there, and time figures itself in many different ways. In the traditional model of the cemetary, you might consider the exhibition to be the headstones and memorials. But perhaps the other traces which people leave behind, the detritus of engagement with the place, are equally powerful, or evidence of their nature as places of living history. Of course, people have long used the graveyard as spaces for ritual, and the recent rise of Dark Tourism has certainly served to foreground the contemporary influence of graveyards. They are contested spaces, very often, spaces of transgression not just between the living and the dead, but between the seen and unseen, the permitted and 'unpermitted' elements of the lives of the living.
But there are other, less glamourous elements of the graveyard. Rathje and Murphy, in 2001, noted that our garbage, in the future, holds a key to our pasts - and thus, to our presents. In garbology, a form of the study of the physical trace, we can present a picture which, whilst not full, can add to the presentation and understanding of a space or place. Erosion, of course, is a trace of its own - wether deliberately or just in their natural activity within the space, leaving footprints in the mud. They sit on trees and tombs, and thus through the erosion of environmental features you can read what occurs there.
Accretion also occurs, and addresses many of the same issues. So what do you find in the bin? Flowers deposited for mourning, drinks bottles. But people do not always deposit their detritus in the bin - and hide their rubbish in other discreet areas, perhaps in cracks in walls and tombs. Another layer of accretion is graffitti, on the cemetary furniture - but rarely on the graves. In graffitti, many people claim places and items for their own, perhaps expressing a fondness for a space. Such accretion tells us a lot about how people understand, appreciate and interact with spaces, and create, even, a sense of place in these places so often thought dead.
So much we interact in these places of the dead as we would in the places of the living - we eat, we drink, we walk, sit and make love. Perhaps this figures the graveyard as a space of transition, a different kind of liminal intermediary space. They are social spaces, inherently bound up with their particular surrounding environment, and the rubbish and material traces can tell us as much about this as the monuments and memorials can.
In behanving thus in cemetaries, we revivify the dead, we make the people once lost a part of our own present. In these acts, perhaps, we perform an acceptance of death, an absorbtion of it. We interact with loss, and perhaps, make it manageable for us. For in this, we understand that one day too, we shall be so much soil, so much detritus - so much stardust.
Via the magic of Skype, we are able to hear from people across the world!
More people in the West beleive in aliens and the dead, than in God. The supernatural has long been a subject of fascination, used to explain things which we do not understand. Even in the modern world of scientific knowledge, we are highly engaged with them, as part of our intangible heritage. But museum professionals, though they might know of the connections between their institutions and the supernatural, do not often talk about it, for it would risk undermining the position of the museum as a place of scientific objectivity.
Ghosts can be found almost anywhere - in museum buildings and objects. Museum buildings can be of many forms, and it is particularly, perhaps, those which have reappropriated other spaces - hospitals or houses - in which ghostly specters remain. In objects, owned once upon a time, the focus of individuals can be concentrated to figure a kind of performative spectrality.
Sometimes, there are museums about ghosts - at the Draugastrid Ghost Centre, for example, or the Prague Ghost Museum. Sometimes, the museums have attempted to engage with the supernatural and openly talk about them, such as the Bible Lands Museum, or the online platform 'The Haunted Museum.'
Sometimes, the museums are dedicated to the ghosts: the Peterborough Museum is one of the most haunted sites in the UK, housing over 80 ghosts in the former hospital space. This is a space entirely dedicated to its spectral occupants. In doing so, it engages with the history of its area and environment. Likewise, the Iron Island Museum was set up as an attempt to engage with the history of the area, and the Tower of London is also a space for supernatural happenings which are explicitly figured on their website.
Many museums, though, have hidden stories of the supernatural with which they do not want to engage. The National Museum of Anthropology, in Madrid, was built as a space in which the dead daughter of Dr Velasco was enshrined - this is no longer the case. The Tropen Museum, too, houses objects which are considered haunted, and many visitors to the isaac fernandez museum have seen figures, but these are narratives with which the museum does not engage or foreground. The Egyptian Museum, of course, is full of ghosts, dead bodies, and curses. The De La Plata Museum in Argentina, is also full of bodies, lost people, and curses. And our own Belgrave Hall Grove ghost was photographed in 1998 - and investigations discovered that there were many ghosts in the space, one of whom was rather dangerous and should be left alone...turns out its one of the most haunted sites in the UK. The Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art, too, is one of the most haunted museums in the world, with nuns haunting its corridors, possessions, and self-propelling lifts. Sometimes, these ghosts have critiqued the museums and their exhibitions as they did at the National Historical Museum in Brazil, via the agency of a medium. This is already a space of ghosts - when we imagine ghosts as figurations of memory, personal and national.
Seems there are many museums all over the world which are stuffed to the gunnels with spirits. How much we should foreground this? Can we use them for audience development - ignoring the stories can close of joys and intangible modes of engagement beyond the empirical realm. Can we use these stories to bring in new visitors?
How much we might beleive or disbeleive in ghosts as a physical reality, it is important that we recognise museums as a space of resonances, and that we respect these echoes of the past.
The uncanny is a curious combination of attraction and repulsion. Uncanny objects have long been part of the museum experience, and museums can, should they desire, engage with this uncanniness, and generate those experiences of the unheimlich in their display.
Jentsch and Freud provide the cannonical texts which discuss the concept of the 'uncanny,' which relates to 'ken,' a word meaning known. The uncanny is the unknown, the uncertain, the shifting and obscure. When we do not know the difference between life and death, when we do not understand how our world is working, and our relationship with it, this is how the unheimlich makes itself manifest. This is also made manifest in the cybernetic work of Mori, in which the relationship between the living and the non-living-but-not-dead is problematised in the 'Uncanny Valley.' The uncanny is also that which was hidden and now revealed, something which is doubled or repeated, that self-other which is not self-self, a loss of control
33% of visitors come to the British Museum to see the mummies of the Egyptian gallery, and they elict this exact reaction of attraction and repulsion. Of course, it is not only the mummy which creates this experience, but other kinds of strange, juxtaposed and weird objects - tears and curses in a bottle.. How, then, can museums produce more of this sense of the uncanny?
David Lynch's work Twin Peaks provides a perfect example of the way aesthetic productions can create a sense of the unhomely. The possibility of objects coming to life is something which have long been associated with museums - and earlier collections. Church reliquaries were long thought animated in some form, to have an agency and creative power. The Emblemata, at the Bodlian Library in 1627, hung a crocodile in a church as an emblem of evil - the physical world, in the reliquary or cabinet, becomes a space in which the world can be figured. Creating these systems of spatial arrangement fed into the form of systematisation in which objects such as the Fijian Mermaid become not the focus of uncanniness, but a part of the uncanny system as a whole.
We have desire to recreate the cabinet, thus figured, as evidenced in The Last Tuesday Society or the Pitt Rivers Museum, but what are the resulting ethical implications? We don't often engage with the uncanny in the traditional museum display - but it can be done, not just through labelling, but through design and other forms of interpretation. At the Caribbean Before Coloumbous exhibition at the British Museum, they used sounds and smells to evoke the sense of the environment - but this didn't really work. In the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, then, they created a kind of labyrinth which mirrored that of the journey of the Egyptian spirit through the afterlife. Soon, they will be using the atmophere of a Torres Strait Funary event to display a feature object - a Crocodile Headdress.
I've often wondered as to the value of discomfort in the museum space. So much we focus on creating pleasurable experiences, but there is, as evidenced in the popularity of horror literature and cinema, a distinct joy to be had in being disturbed. And of course, being unnerved or scared can create a new interpretation of life, a transformative experience. We engage with traumatic subjects, of course, and sometimes attempt to resolve them, and perhaps this can provide a basis for that disturbing, strange, odd, uncanny interaction. I wonder too, if we are wrong to manipulate the viewer thus - I'm not sure we are, for by entering the museum space, the visitor, on some level, expects a certain amount of framing and manipulation. Can't we embrace that element of theatre, and make beleive, and give our audience credit for understanding that?
We understand J.M.W. Turner to be ahead of his time, and typically think of him as misunderstood during his own time. Admittedly in the reviews which appeared in the papers, he did seem to be represented in a negative way. However, when understood as evidence of social environments and contexts rather than reviews of the objects themselves, perhaps we can come to a new understanding.
The Royal Academy, Turner recognised, was central to his artistic life, and for most of his artistic life he exhibited there. In the 1830s and 40s, when he became ever more abstract, he was already established as an artist. He had, even then, been described as 'the Greatest Master of His Age' - but soon after, he was thought to be living on his past reputation, mad or senile. Why, then, was he still exhibited? Was it because of this past reputation or because of the strange effects which his colouration and use of light began to have in his work? The cricial responses to Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon Coming On (The Slave Ship), an astonishing picture, focuses heavily upon its highly coloured nature and the power which results from this, rather than the social narratives which the image presents. Colour, here, is a raw material, and it is grouped together in the canvases as 'heterogeneous atoms.'
This is evidence of a pure enjoyment of materiality, in a space which was wholly dedicated at least at part, to conceptual and social effects. The RA grew up as a space dedicated to the mind, but the Exhibition became increasingly about a social and material event. Visitors, in the depictions of the events, dominate, and they seem to be gazing not at the inner workings and conceptual understnaings of the mind, but at each other and the physicality of the world around them. The crowd, in these depictions, mingled with the images. Leading on from this, portraits, for the critics, were invasive, almost like the audience, outwith the tradition of ideal art at the time. They became increasingly popular, particularly showing the benefactors of the exhibition, and the display of social status and wealth in the exhibition space. This was the case with George the IV, then the Prince of Wales, who seemed more concerned with exhibiting himself, than engaging with the works on display. It is possible, in portraiture, to heighten the position of the sitter and elevate them into the realm of the sublime - but they can also be satirised and commodified through the same medium.
Turner himself had produced portraiture - notably Jessica from the Merchant of Venice in 1830, and here the stories of Shakespeare, along with the figures in the portrait, become narrated and commodified. Jessica is also looking out of the painting, out of the window, and covered in astonishing jewellry. It is claimed that the yellow background, however, goes some way to proving that the colour could be used as a background, an idea not common at the time. But it does also play with the idea of the religious icon, performing a narrative of faith which elevates the literary character. But it also performs this satirisation, for the golden background also makes comment upon the wealth and material commerce on display at the exhibition itself. Contemporary reviews focussed upon the materiality of the peice and its comical or ironic effect. Material wealth was considered despicable, and the mere depiction of it was considered suspicious in itself. Thus, the critics were open to more than just the representative qualities of the paintings - only enhanced by the idea of the madness or senility of the artist. Thus, the critics could be seen as a way of permitting the critics to focus upon things other than they would normally do.
Criticism is an interesting problem, and an interesting object to be interpreted in itself. The nuances of critique are not always made explicit, partiularly when we are considering historical documents. For the risk lies in taking them literally devalues the power not only of their reading of the objects, but the modern historian's perception of the nature of the critic in the past, considering them as somehow lesser than they.
The display of music is particularly difficult, as my friends on the Attic have already discussed. In 'The Beat Goes On,' at the National Museums Liverpool, the value of exhibiting popular music culture was shown, for it re-engaged with those younger, perhaps non-traditional audiences. It also afforded the visitors an opportunity to engage with non-iconic objects. In Liverpool, most of the exhibits were loaned, and have now returned to their owner. How, then, do you display a collection so impermanent and ephemeral? The Experience Museum Project and the Science Fiction Museum is dedicated to the exploration of creativity and exploration in popular music through interactives, memorabilia, and sound. However, just having a collection or a temporary exhibition, doesn't always work. Very often, we need tangible items, and these are often used to tell iconic, 'traditional' narratives, rather than the experience of the audiences which surround them, and the social contexts which exist between them.
Do online exhibitions, collections, interpretations, have the ability to fill in this lacunae? The Manchester District Music Archive, which allows 'collectors' of music to upload their music and items to the website, is a prime example of a positive answer. It suggests the idea that individuals themselves, can be seen as museums, and the social creation of museums can be evidenced in the Crown Pub Punks fanpage on Facebook. The community fill in the blanks which exist in the academic understanding and knowledge of this time and place. The online space becomes a space of memory and polyvocality, a space for the engagement with cultural heritage.
The preservation activities of the museum and the online archive offer very different possibilities. Whilst museums, perhaps, tend to host the iconic, the website can curate the mundane. It's difficult, however, in terms of collection, for the variety of media formats and the quantity of material which may well be generated by such a call for papers as the Manchester Project shows throws up all manner of artefacts with all their positives and inherent difficulties. Shaping these collections into some kind of cohesive whole which it is possible to exhibit it in a digital realm is also something of an issue.
How can - or can - online museum archives and fans work together with museums and technologists to create new audiences, understandings, technologies and modes of interpretation? How can museums use online archives to expand their boundaries? Can we reach audiences through these archives, and through this draw them into the space to immerse themselves within the physical world. Can projects such as the Home of Metal allow the audience and museum to re-engage, to give a home to counter-culture and the ephemeral, the emotion of the fan? Does the popularity of the music determine its visibility in the museum space now, and can projects such as this give a cultural value to that less often exhibited? And can they deal with the difficult media formats which music, and other forms of non-plastic, mutable arts and productions, result in, thus expanding the boundary of what the museum object might be?
The Estonian People's Museum provides an interesting case study for a questioning of the formation of, and understanding of, identity. How do the identities of museum professionals, audiences, and the collections interact and become apparent in the Estonian People's Museum. Identities are always, of course, figured in the context of the Other - making it a particularly complicated thing to define.
Estonia itself is in a project of identity formation, as a post-Communist state realigning itself with the West. The Estonian Museum had no building for a very long time, and it is only now reestablishing itself and the positioning of its collections in both a practical and theoretical way. The identity of the museum, and its professionals, are in a significant process of re-identification.
This is figured in the opening up of the existing museum space. Very high importance is placed upon the professionalisation of the curatorial and museological identities. But a collaborative programme, which aimed to open the museum space to the public, gave out a call for papers in which the people traditionally seen as the museum 'audience' were permitted to put in proposals for a self-curated exhibition, which was voted for online by members of the public. The research group analysed both the responses of the audience themselves, but also the curatorial reaction to the project as a whole.
We, the audience at this presentation are given some of those responses - truely, this is practicing what you preach, for the interpretation of Taavi's data also becomes thus collaborative. The modernist conception of the cultural professional is one of autonomy, but we risk being detatched from the world which we observe, if we ascribe to this perspective. We need to reengage with the world, which a participatory framework, which permits subjectivity, enables us to do. Such an approach also allows for a renegotiation of power structures between audience and museum, and it also permits the museum to heighten their respect for the objects themselves, not just treating them as objects of subjegation. How we as cultural professionals, reinterpret audience responses, is itself a process of 'translation.'
New roles are emerging across the museum profession. Rephrasing, reinterpreting the responses is not dissimilar to the work of this blog. It is an activity which enables us to reformulate and reobserve ideas and responses, see them through new eyes. It allows us, as cultural professionals, to reinterpret ourselves and reclarify our own position. This is a concrete figuration of what conferences, as spaces of performance and dialogue, really are.
In Kensington Palace, the liminality of the redevelopment is figured in The Enchanted Palace, which supplies curious, and unexpected experiences, with what has often been seen as a very traditional space. Does this, in fact, work? Who is it curious for?
A liminal space, in the midst of development, with collections removed, the Enchanted Palace becomes imaginatively free. Artistic installations and animated exhibitions, tell almost-fairytales about lost Princesses. The room titles provide the majority of the textual interpretation, and many of these are emotive. It is the emotion and the objects which generate it with which you interact. Actors are there, in the spaces, not as docents or guides, but as parts of the exhibition. These rooms operate through the presence of many sensory elements - but these sensory elements also figure an absence. You hear noise which is not there.
This creates a unique between-dream-space, rather reminiscent of the uncanny illusion of Dennis Severs House. Houses such as this, and the Back to Back in Birmingham, use a theatrical approach to transport people into the realms of the past, and unite, on some level, lost, historic figures with the people of now.
Fairytales have universal appeal, and are polysemeous. This metaphoric quality allows the Enchanted Palace to engage with multiple meanings, but the fairytale trope also allows a certain element of simplification: the guide to the display can fit onto one side of A4 paper. The risk, of course, is that the histories become lost under multiple layers of interpretation. But I wonder about this layering - is it really a problem? I think, perhaps, that what needs to happen is a teaching, not of the languages of museum spaces or heritage sites, but of an opening up of ways of reading them, and making those differentiated ways of reading accessible to the visitor.
There were a number of practical conditions which motivated the extraordinary project. Kensington Palace, which has long sought to be inclusive and accessible, needed restoration and redevelopment, and there was a desire to retain the visitor figures and accessibility. They wanted to develop their audiences. But how far does this exhibition, with all its ideosyncracity, permit that inclusiveness?
Kensington Palace has attracted many visitors from overseas, who expect a traditional heritage experience, perhaps who want to tick the box, have the 'genuine' experience, or hunt for icons. But there are also those who reject visiting the palace, because they wanted something less traditional - and it is, perhaps, to these new and desired audiences, that the Enchanted Palace exhibition was directed.
One of the things which the Enchanted Palace has done is to revivify the visitor feedback. Whilst formerly the visitor book had contained almost passive responses such as 'nice,' 'peaceful,' now it engendered very emotive responses, negative and positive. Most found this a positive experience, and the words which appeared in the visitor book contained more emotional power, such as 'magical' and 'beautiful.' It is possible to see the value of taking a risk, to run the gamut of offending certain audience members, and the value of engendering any reponse, positive and highly negative.
What will the redevelopment really learn? Will it's return to a more normal mode of presentation alienate the new audiences developed? Will their old audiences forgive them and return? What of the magic can, will and should be retained?
This ability to see magic everywhere, this childhood quality which many lose, is something which we must learn to retain, and value more. There is, of course, another level of truth with which we can engage. The immersion, emotion, the irreality of the fairytale asks us what reality really is, and what really it is that we are talking about when we discuss facts, authenticity, and truth. We need, perhaps, in our professional, academic and everyday lives, to embrace elements of the real-unreal.
In creative writing, as the last two presentations have shown, we can create a personal response to the museum space. In running a workshop which allows engagements with these things, Rebecca turns our conference into an 'anarchic and unpredictable' dream-space. She has used similar techniques in the museum space, emphasising writing as a process as well as a product.
Free writing, an act in which we write that occuring in our mind...we fill our papers with things, words, that which is at the top of our minds. The space is quiet with concentration, the tapping of my keys and the clicking of the camera becoming strangely loud in the blanketed silence. Our responses are based in the now, in the shifting beings which are our minds. My bracelets clatter on the table. We walk and we write. There is silence inside me now.
Underline the things of interest, Rebecca says.
We are in a circle, closer together.
As academic writers, we don't usually write in this unstructured way, a way which can rid us of our thoughts, but also display the 'diamonds in the dust,' treasures and revelations which we would have destroyed through analytical thought.
We shout out questions about a pair of boots, and the diversity, from where they were brought to who owned them, to why they are covered in ribbons, to what are they thinking. We write down responses to these questions ourselves, becoming the agents through which the objects speak. Perhaps. Or at least our dreams of the objects do.
We see an image of a farm wagon, from the Pioneer Yosemite History Center Online. It is red, with a yellow undercarridge and wheel spokes. It's label is black, and the floor seems to be stand. We are given prompts - The Wagon Caused an Accident - How?; You Hid Inside It for Three Days - Why?; Your Father Asked You to Chop It for Firewood, and Something Stopped You - What?; You Hate It - Why?; You Want To Redecorate it - How? - and are asked to respond and to discuss their responses with each other.
It's nice to let conference participants think, rather than just to listen. And they get to discuss what they have written - it's great to see them sharing their own creativity. What happens in the play of individual response and social sharing in the creation of new possibilities and ontologies for objects. There is much potential for the collaborative interpretation of objects, in which we augment meaning through audience participation. Stepping into another world, and enlarging your own experience, in reading the minds of other participants. When we look, even at that most seemingly solitary activity of reading, many of us respond to the sociality of marginalia, look for a voice in the text, investigate the personality. We build on meaning together. For some, however, it can be unnerving. But in writing, we can investigate the active, multiply sensed elements of museum space in a way that images sometimes cannot.
But what is also astonishing is the diversity of response. There are those who focus upon materiality, those who create stories almost tangental to the objects themselves, which evoke powerful emotions beyond, but figured in, the physical objects.
Imagine yourself in a museum store. But imagine it not as a museum store. What is it? Is it a hoarder's cabinet, a clearing house, the back of a lost emporium, the chaos of moving home, the drawers of your inner mind? A coroner's rooms, a purgatory of liminality, betwixt and between, a grandmother's attic, a theatrical store, a pause on the way to somewhere else, shelves filled with peices which will become something else in art. We write on a particular object in this store, and its role within it.
What is this thing we call a store? It is a liminal place, certainly, but then perhaps all spaces are spaces of transition and movement. For even the most static seeming display, as far removed from conference dynamism as it is possible to be, is filled with the interplays of meaning, and even just the movement of dust. We, our objects, all the elements of the physical world, are just wanderers, whose traces sometimes do not manifest until long after we have passed and gone.
What have we made in this session? Is there anything which we would like to retain? Perhaps a freedom in our responses, a skill at releasing the buzzing images in our minds. Perhaps this can rid us of distractions, or allow us to investigate our own creative possibilities. Or perhaps we have allowed ourselves to reenage with objects, to resist, however, their fixed interpretation. Museums are strange places, and creative writing can bring this to the fore. How can these creative responses be utlized in the museum space? And how are the responses framed - as authoritative, or as artwork? It's an interesting comment upon the power structures which exist within the museum space. How far can we push the ontological differentiation of objects, and the identity and position of the Museum?
Perhaps we can collect some of these stories. It'd be nice.
Can there be a museum which reflects someones sense of their personality upon themselves? How can a personal collection of dreams, stories and objects, speak to other audiences.
Jan Svankmajer is a Czech artist. Recently, Maeve showed the film Down to the Celler, which materialises fear through objects and spaces which interact with a little girl. The narrative of the peace is deliberately open-ended. In it, fear can be physicalised, emboddied and compressed into a time, place and artwork. Using this, Svankmajer uses childhood fears to play with the perception of the audiences. We discuss these fears and dreams every day - but do we consider this to be a presentation of the museum.
For Bachelard, the hut was the safest place for dreaming, a person's identity based in shelter. Rather than opposed to this, hoarding represents a fear of being prevented from gaining this shelter, the need to identify the self through their relationship with the external object.
Imagination augments the value of reality, for everyone. We all want to make a hut - some just need more things outside themselves than others. In the Collyer brothers, who owned Rhinestone House is Harlem, we find an extreme case of hoarding. The brothers excluded themselves from society, and hid themselves among their things. Afeared of burglary, they tried to hide their house and protect its contents - and these attempts at creation eventually killed them. When the neighbours reported the missing men, the intention of privacy was destroyed as the space was opened up to investigation. These objects were much of the stuff of the everyday - the emotional form of collecting intimated the 'chaos of memories' of which Walter Benjamin spoke.
Castle Ellen House, a multiplly owned, palimpsestual house, represents a multiplicity of narratives and meanings. The owner, Michael Kearney, does not need the house, but he has worked on it since he bought it and houses objects within it. He claims that his collections make him happy, that the objects will have a use someday (though sometimes, he says, he makes mistakes). There's a sunken rockery in which the rocks are covered with moss, thirty four chickens - he is hoarding nature, and animals. He collects boats, though he is not near water, private signs though he is open to the public, unexplained mechanical items, a TV box without a TV...he makes his own drawings and collects newspaper articles, and a dog called Sydney New South Wales.
What is a collection - should such a thing be defined, or legitimated? Or is it entirely to do with the person to whom it is associated? And what constitutes a response to it? Imagine being read a story about this space, a lyrical response to its space, its presence and its past, its personality and its objects. It's a dreamy experience, to be read to at this time. Objects, here, become personalities as well as the man who lives there. And even the light which moves throughout the space becomes a personalised object. An object with agency - for what is the relationship, really, of the object and their collector? Who has the power? Michael considers himself a custodian of the place, which significantly problematises the relationship of thing and person.
Could the reader, the narrator, become a collected object themselves? In being read to, have we become part of Maeve's own collection, part of Michael Kearney's even? Is this symposium a collection, albeit a momentary one? Perhaps we are, in this melting pot, as transient as it is, a moving collection, which shall at the end of this dispersed, but perhaps remain linked at this moment in time, and just extended across the world.
Museum spaces create different responses in different people. Some wish to look and absorb,and some wish to create. In the act of creation, which may take many forms, it is possible to enact a creative critique which is at once analytical and enjoyable.
Museo-Poetics, a site specific act of poetic response, is such a form of playful critique, which takes its influences from Bachelard and Jane Rendell's 'site-writing'. Poesis, taken in its original sense as any act of imaginative creation, can come in many forms, and poetry, a way of making language strange, lends itself to representation in different media forms. Here, those media are film, concrete poetry and its language, brought together to provide a kind of homage to the Round Room of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, in a way which traditional textual critique would find difficult.
The film provides the audience with a visual awareness of the space of the Round Room, but also serves a deeper purpose. Through it's deliberately foregrounded framing, it showcases the subjectivity of every response to the space, critical or otherwise. In showing the importance of positionality in creating a perspective, the film also problematizes the hierarchy of subject-object relationships, for using Lucifer as the focalisor for the narrative questions the location of the critique, and raises the question of the agency of objects.
This positionality also becomes apparent in the shifting of perspective which occurs in the concrete artwork, a-semi abstract, symbolic evocation of the space of the Round Room itself. In this, canvases are positioned on a background which echoes the gallery's walls, but the way in which we interact and respond to these is very different to that of the film. In colour, arrangement and the shaping of text, the concrete artwork encourages the creation of multiple meanings, and questions whether even the most tangible artefact is truly solid or permanent.
The text, which appears in different forms throughout this Museo-Poesis, becomes more than simply language, more than a sign. Nontheless, the language is critical in making meaning, and also serves to make clear many of the issues raised implicitly by the film and canvas, such as the power structures in which museums, their operators, their objects and their audiences are tangled.
When we consider polyvocality, we tend to consider the response of the visitor, not the academic. But the academic's response can be just as creative, as Jane Rendell's acts of 'site-writing' show. We need not merely write academically, but respond to museums in a way which is as inventive and imaginative as they are themselves.
In 2006 Grande Exhibitions created a travelling exhibit focussed on Leonardo da Vinci, composed mostly of his paintings, anotomical drawing and notebooks, which continues to tour today. Using large images, and replicas of his famous inventions, this attempts to look back to the earlier form of the wunderkammer in which all can enjoy the power of this great mind. The focus on the artist is for the viewer's benefit, leaving the status of the artist in little doubt and using physical recreations, and presents the past in terms of the present moment, thus privileging the spectator.
But these models are recreations. What are the implications of this? They are created by Italian craftsmen, to scale, with the materials and techniques available to da Vinci at the time. Some are truely lifelike, some are smaller or larger than life, suggesting that the gaze is crucial to the success of this exhibition. It positions Grande Exhibitions as a curator of a personality, and the persona of da Vinci becomes the focus, making Leonardo himself the curio, rather than just his inventions.
His notebooks are scattered around the world, but some have suggested that they should not be fragemented for all this. They were never intended to have a linear narrative, but are expressions of a curiosity towards the world. They can be seen as a paper and textual cabinet of curiosities, and da Vinci seems a kind of collector. His juxtapositions are often haphazard, positioning anatomical drawings together with machines. He disects man along with machines, suggesting a comparison between the two.
Hence, the recreations of Grande Exhibitions do not need to be seen as loosing that 'aura,' which Benjamin considered a feature of the reproduction. Benjamin puts forward the idea of the 'sacred' aura of object, which is lost through mechanical, mass, reproduction. But can this reproduction be seen as a kind of curiosity itself? I suppose it all depends upon the way in which it is interpreted, presented and located in terms of its position with the other occupants of its space.
Grande Exhibitions also present other exhibitions, such as Planet Shark. Being fascinated by all these different subjects, are they unconsciously producing a cabinet themselves? How do we look at this - through Berger's concept of the specator's gaze, or Derrida's notion of the framing and framed. Any understanding of an object really is determined by the way in which it is presented, and we are always caught between the framer and the framed. What is within and without the frame, and the frame itself, are all equally important in the interpretation of the object. Thus, in this Derridian, Benjaminian cabinet which Grande Exhibitions creates, the viewer is overwhelmed by all these frames all at once. But it is all reconstruction - perhaps what they are suggesting is that there is already a sense of loss in the display of any artwork, genuine or not. Grande Exhibitions, through its reinforcing of interactivity, and the technology of the modern world, showcases that frame in a consciously ironic manner. Are their audience conscious of this irony, I wonder?
What, then, is genuine? This paper even questions what the nature of the museum actually is - for this is a museum exhibition which is not a museum exhibition. I suppose authenticity depends upon the definition of the word, how the objects are displayed, and the multiplicity of meaning which are ascribed to things. But perhaps there is no such thing as the 'genuine article' - perhaps everything becomes simply a trace of something already lost, perceived by a privileged viewer.
Love tokens, the main focus of Bridget's PhD research, are charming and very moving material expressions of a lost, intangible thread of personal feeling, and investigating these have lead her to discover a whole other, social, form. 'Evasions', also known as 'imitation regals' or 'medals', point out some interesting relationships between people and money in the 18th century. By letting the objects speak, we can understand this. Numismatists have long enjoyed paranumismatica - collecting 'fakes' in 'Black Museums,' so they clearly have some value. What is it?
These fakes are somewhat underinvestigated, falling between social, economic and cultural historians. Social historians have often commented upon the poor condition of small change in the eighteenth century, but have done little research as to why this might be the case. Many were made of poor quality material, and are worn, chipped and annonymised. Why?
Copper coins were not part of the Royal Mint's contract with the Treasury, and they minted them only as a favour to enable poorer workers to gain money. Neither was distribution part of their remit: this meant that in the provinces, access to money was limited. But with the rising demands of the nascent Industrial Revolution, more money was needed, and counterfeitters began to arise. There was also a problem of conversion - copper coins could not be converted back into gold, silver or paper money. So the currency became very stagnated.
Melting down coins to make counterfiet 'blanks,' and coins of private enterprise were some of the ways by which this problem was alleiviated. Eventually, the mint had to acknowledge that the private enterprise coins were legal tender, but the counterfiet coins still made up a large proportion of the tokens used.
'Evasions' are lightweight coppers, which were likely only made in the few years either side of 1800. But they were deliberately made to look worn, covered with fictitious dates, so they are very hard to date. In 1771, counterfeitting became a capital offence. So imitating regal coins with deliberate errors became the favoured way of evading this possibilty. Many of them were made in Birmingham, by those skilled in creating small metal objects and dies, and many were known as Brummegems. Often, they were thirty percent lighter than their full value, so could make a significant profit for their producers.
We are, according to Gombrich, programmed to recognise not likness, but unlikeness. It is this which is so charming about these evasions. The obverse portraits and images can change, but also the legends and words, with deliberately different names or misspellings. During the period of George the Third, for instance, we find coins depicting Alfred the Great...and William Shakespeare. On the reverse side of this coins, we find huge, often comic variations of the Britannia image. 'Bonny Girl', anyone?
Choosing different figureheads pokes fun at the monarch, but also suggests something much darker, some more derisive opinions upon George III. The different figures and images used - representations of Englishness such as Shakespeare, or non-monarchical figures who represent antipathy towards the crown - give an insight into the variety of late eighteenth century society and its relationship with money. These evasions can been seen as 'funny money': as a profitable, clever way of avoiding punishment, as whimsy, as critique of the government and king, and evidence of the skill of the craftsmen. They are also a response to a severe shortage of money. Without these fakes feeding it, the Industrial Revolution may well have stagnated, or gone another way. Even today, coins are used to express self and identity - we need only consider the independent currencies of Lewes and Stroud, and the counterfeitting problem in Newcastle. These fakes, then, are a powerful, and important, creative counter-culture, expressive of a disturbing social poverty, and have allowed us to develop the society and economic structure of today.
29 March 2011
Situated at the top of a hill in Sneinton, this tower mill provides a beautiful space of escape and relaxation. It is not often that you can visit a conference and listen to the early spring song of the blackbird, or glimpse the past in a tangible present.
Green's Mill, typical of the 18th and 19th centuries, was built by George Green Snr, a prosperous businessman, in 1807. It passed to his son, also called George, on his death in 1829. George Jnr, however, had a role beyond that of the Miller - he was a mathematician, and fellow of Cambridge's Caius College, whose theories on subjects such as electricity and magnetism still impact our lives today. It was only some time after his death in 1841, however, that his reputation began to grow, and his importance to be recognised, and after some years of dereliction and restoration, the mill was finally opened as a museum and homage to Green in 1985.
Accompanied by it's Science Centre, it provides a fantastically unusual space in which to tell a multitude of stories - of milling, of science and mathematics, of the social history of Nottingham, the biography of a man, and of a site. It is a place which those who work there clearly love - the miller takes you on a tour of his working mill, and you can see the fondness and tacit knowledge he has of his building and way of life. It is truly amazing to see the survival of such modes of production and being, particularly in a world in which many are separated from that production. This is certainly not a 'dead' museum, a mausoleum, but a living site, and highly valuable for this. Sadly, however, with the current financial climate, such sites are under threat.
Later, we walked to Nottingham Contemporary, where Museuobunny and his companions had lunch. The gallery is currently in changeover, so there were no exhibitions on as such, but there is a sense in which these changeover periods are also interesting, for the galleries of the Contemporary are such that you can look through the glass walls into the installation processes. The back of house, the production of display, here becomes subject to Benjamin's phenomenon of porosity, the leaking of spaces and conceptual worlds one into the other. We dispersed, after this, and Museobunny really hopes that his honored guests enjoyed exploring Nottingham. He also hopes that perhaps some of them would like to comment upon this post, and tell him what they got up to on their day-trip!
28 March 2011
What are the structures which create meaning, and what can things be made to represent? Keith Wilson's figurative representation of these structures through almost sculptural creations and shelves uses odd, unexpected objects to represent things. At the Wellcome, his work on the Periodic Table is used as the precurser to the display of Henry Wellcome's actual collection. Sometimes, the choices of objects made specific reference to the scientific community, but many were arbitrary, with hidden and obscure narrative structures hidden within their presence.
But Wilson knew that they were a client who were open to risk. He knew that the Wellcome would recognise that object meanings change, and that museums themselves change over history. With the Wellcome collection, the idea was to let the collection walk in, to create a museum in which objects and collections could volunteer themselves. Keith, then, did not wish to limit what might be collected by the museum, and so the creation of the exhibition Things was an attempt to speak to that. But it was important that everything which entered this exhibition, was possible to put in.
In his open boxes, you can see the literal and metaphorical evocation of the permeability of gallery space, and the transience and mutability of meaning. Each of the boxes, figured on the basis that they could contain a head, plays a role in the semantic meaning of the space, narrating the opening hours of the museum, and the calendar of the exhibition's existence. Inside the gallery, too, the utilization of the old skeleton cabinets suggests, to me, the temporal permeability of this particular museum space. This, it was hoped, would create an even footprint to the inside and outside of the gallery space, in which the public's donated objects could be displayed.
The items could be gifts or loans, thus lessening the restrictions upon what could be displayed. A call for participation asked for the voluntary donation of a 'thing' to the collection, either temporarily or permanently. The display of these objects was also somewhat eccentric, subverting the standard museum security through the box-shelves' use of cling-film, rather than glass, to cover and 'protect' the objects.
All the way through, two monitors and a highly efficient computerised system, enabled the museum to accession the objects almost instantly and for the visitor to arrive, log their object, and see the exhibition, all in the course of a day. Here, the porosity of the museum's back of house system is made apparent, for the acts of the museum which usually occur behind closed doors is figured in the active engagement of the visitor in the accession process, albeit one which is made more public friendly and accessible. The whole process was visible on the upload screens, wherein donors could track the progression of their objects into the collection.
What were the tendancies which appeared in the donations? Many were medical, but many told a number of sad, comic, or dark stories. They came from an audience both lay and academic, from Museum Studies students to members of the (aparently more normal!) public. Many of them were repeated - and many were found to be other than what they had been donated as. Nothing had to be rejected, reflecting well upon both the museum and the people who interact with it, and almost all the boxes were filled. Some were 'factual,' describing processes, and others engaged with the fantastic. Filled with personal stories, these objects created a social dialogue, of their own and of the donors who became ever more visibly absent - perhaps more so than they would in a gallery which names itself after a donor. Each and every object, too, went through a transition, from personal item to museal artefact, questioning, of course, and forgrounding, those processes by which we come to understand the nature of the museum object and its creation.
There was a strange, dichotomous, static-mutability to the exhibition and the creation of these works. What moves, I wonder? Does anything really remain static? I have long thought that the Futurists were wrong in ascribing the role of the Mausoleum to the Museum. This is what the slight squinting of the artist can show us. Museums are not spaces of death, but changing spaces - something which Jennie Morgan's earlier paper showed very clearly. They are places of alternation, of alternation and entropy, of motion.
What is the next stage for this project? Publication? Re-occurance? Development? It already exists on a website, accessibe from the Wellcome Collection's site under 'Calendar of Things.' This virtual place, in a heavily mutable environment, presents, rather paradoxically, the ephemeral materiality in a somehow more solid immateriality.
Things, it seems, do not die til they cease to exist. And even then, as even the very presentation of this project shows, they develop their own strange kind of afterlife.
Women's participation in astronomy has remained rather invisible. Between 1898-1903, Marguerite Phillips was employed to photograph the night sky. The project of the Carte du Ciel & Astrographic Catalogue, forced telescopes and astronomers, to re-engage with the night sky. Australian Observatories played a huge role in this history, but this has long been interpreted in a very masculine, scientific form, in which the role of women and native knowledges have been sidelined.
Eighteen observatories originally ascribed to the Carte du Ciel project, the aim of which was to follow in the tradition of Western map-making. Maps can introduce modes of control which are not possible without them - through the map, we can come to control and catalogue the night sky, and develop and reinforce specialist knowledge. But this performance of knowledge occurs at a distance. It's intention was to enable future astronomers to compare epochs, and so create a cumulative map over time. Individual observatories were participants in this network. The colonial observatories were subject to the control of the Royal Observatory in London, but the director of the Australian Observatories, Henry Chamberlain Russell, bypassed these gatekeepers and worked to give power, equipment and independence to the Sydney and Melbourne observatories.
Women have been involved in astronomy in every culture, in every era. But they have been invisible. Even in the 1980s, there were many perceived limits on what they could do, and science was still perceived as a predominantly male preserve. Observatory spaces were often heavily genderised, having to be modified to accomodate 'feminine' needs. Whist Williamina Fleming, at Harvard College, was able to interact on a more equal level with the male participants, but in the pacific islands this was not the case. Women were employed in the Australian, and Scottish, Observatories of the Carte du Ciel, for a salary no man would have accepted. Extentions were built for the work of the women, encouraging the seperation of the genders.
Women were engaged in the repetitive task of measuring and comparing the astrographic plates, some of which could contain over five thousand stars. Yet there remains little evidence of their presence in the official dialogue. But the spaces, and the work of the people inbetween the collection and final interpretation, were the places in which meaning was developed and figured. The final astrographic catalogues were published in 1971, and after eighty-four years, the Carte was never finished. But traces remain in the site, and the material space. There remains the opportunity for the women to return. Australia still has one of the lowest female populations of astrophysics in the world, and women still, as a whole, tend not to be well represented in the scientific world. Whatever the underlying reasons for this, the sites which remain from the Carte then, and its material culture, problematise the role of the invisible and the visible. Through their strange visible invisibility and invisible-visibility, can show evidence of the past role of women, and perhaps that they can, and should, still and in the future, chase the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole, and be able to see the night sky in all its shining glory.
In 'Telling, Showing, Showing Off' Mieke Bal analysed the responses of audience to the American Museum of Natural History. In it, she claims that the display, the framing of the natural history specimens of taxidermy, and cultural dioramas is problematic, for it offers a denial of death, violence, and time. In Time and the Other, Fabian claims that the world outwith the West is temporally distanced, depersonalised. By comparing Bal's analysis with The Catcher in the Rye, Simone De Beauvoir's Travel Diaries, and Peronne and Constance Arntzenius American Journies, she hopes to problematise the relationship of the display of the natural history specimen, with the narratives written about them.
Sallinger's Holden highlights the materiality, the sensoriality and material being of the space as one of fakeness - but a fakeness in which he takes pleasure. He acknowledges the space and the dioramas as highly constructed. Unlike Bal's child, he is not tricked into thinking the display is real, and hints at the museal tendancy to fix the Other in a differentiated temporal space which eradicates individual identity and history. Holden claims, however, that these figures are not anonymous to him - he refers specifically to an Innuit witchdoctor as a he. So whilst he is not fooled by the museum's representative and theatrical work, this does not prevent him from engaging with them.
In 1947, in L'Amerique au jour le jour, Simone de Beauvoir portrays her disturbance at the juxtaposition of reality and representation which she encounters with significantly less pleasure than Holden. When she saw a diorama of Indians, she felt initially as though they were stuffed objects themselves, moved back in time - a staging of America's presentation of history, a material allusion to a text no longer available to us, in Susan Stewart's terms.
These material illusions appear in the account of the Arntzenius sisters, in trips which covered almost six years, exploring the wildlife and human life of North America through camping tours to seek the American, idealised past. Part of their project was the collection of artefacts, but they were very poor and played the banjo or trained dogs to make money. Often, then, they were unable to afford certain artefacts. They did, however, manage to associate themselves with professional expeditions at particular points, one of which was intended to develop the collection and knowledge of the Milwaukee Museum. Making images, to record and trap images, and sometimes staging photographs, was lamented by the sisters as a sacrifice of those animals, which the sisters personified. Their feminist, subjective account is a strong contrast to the 'masculine,' scientific representation and objectification of animals. Both, however, can be interpreted as a form of appropriation, of sacrifice - for all present the animals in a particular frame of meaning.
Mieke Bal, however, encourages the visitor to go to the museum to be happy - to look, but also to join the movement which critiques the racist, sexist dialogues which permeate the museum and its modes of display. We can do this by encouraging subjectivity, but carefully, by realising that this is not a form of analysis which frees the object - rather, it tends to create its own, equally real, if mutable frame.
St Thomas' Church in Southwark, a small Baroque church, houses a secret hidden for almost a century. In 1956, the remains of what is possibly the oldest operating theatre and herb garret in the country was unearthed, reconstructed and opened as a museum in 1962. It is an eccentric space, a space with Built in 1821, it was shut up in 1862. Now a museum, it represents the astonishing survival of an emergency room which existed prior to the emergency of antiseptic and aseptic medicine. But why build it in a Church?
The Hospital of St Thomas had assisted the poorest members of the community as a charitable institution since the twelfth century. It's appropriation of a church space created a private space in which pain could be hidden. Architecture, and its space, can be interpreted in a number of ways - semiotics and phenomenology, for instance, shows how it has a huge storytelling potential. How is this sense of the power of architectural space coveyed in the museum?
In it's almost Soanian, tactile displays, archaic cabinets, it creates a feeling of time arrested, which make you want to linger. They are a stark contrast to the modern 'space age charnel house' of the Huntarian and Wellcome collections. Rather than these spaces, which display bodies and objects, the Old Operating Theatre evokes through absence, through lacunae, and it's task is not to create a narrative or follow an overall display 'strategy,' but to create a sense of place. Objects may be labelled, or not at all. Micro narratives, therefore, can operate in an almost encylopeadic manner. There is a small collection of human remains - they are displayed centrally, but respectfully, as objects of reverence. Traumatic instruments of obstetrics are displayed in darkness, and they would have been as disturbing to their original perceivers and users as they are to us today. This situated knowledge, then comes from a multitude of paths.
The positioning of the museum is also crucial, and in Bachelardian terms its hidden, attic location emphasises its fragility and ephemerality. When the museum was temporarily moved to the crypt in 2006, the meaning of the space changed significantly. In the operating theatre itself, a great contrast is drawn between its restored starkness and the object heavy character of the Herb Garret. But human traces can be found - sometimes within the fabric of the building itself. The blood which seeped from the operations into the floor insulation, and the marks of human teeth the the physician's stick...all these speak of a life now lost. And the space is also used today, for theatrical performances and contemporary art are able to give it a life, albeit one somewhat different from that which it originally had. Sometimes, as Eric Fong's installation showed in 2001, these can create interpretation through absence.
The real skill of this museum lies in its ability of the objects to speak to the senses themselves, an ideosyncratic display which speaks to memory and embodiment? What is the old operating theatre - a skeleton in the closet, a psychological attic...but it is also so much more. Spaces are powerful - they can create worlds for us, worlds which are present, worlds which are present only as trace, worlds not present at all. The Old Operating Theatre is ambiguous - a physical artefact which speaks to us of the past, in its very presentness, evoking through a strange kind of physicality, things which are not there.
In the Ashmolean Museum, there lie the remains of a real collection of curiosities - 'A purse made of pins by a lunatic', the 'Robe of the King of Virginia' and a mermaid's hand amongst others. Displayed in the 'Exploring the Past' gallery of the new redevelopment, these objects speak of a museum and mode of collection long gone - or so it would seem. For the very fact of their presentation in the museum of today accords them a particular relevance. What is this relevance? How do these objects, strange, marginal and dubious as they are, speak to the visitor today? And what is their position in the newly redisplayed galleries?
The Ark of the Tradescants, a collection opened to the public, displayed items collected from all over the world to all walks of life. Threatened by the deaths of the men of the Tradescant family, the collection passed to the lawyer Elias Ashmole, who entered into negotiations with the University of Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum, a space also of scientific investigation, which approached the idea of Bacon's New Atlantis, opened in the presence of the king in the April of 1683. Though it contained a laboratory and a School of Natural History, it's educative value was heavily debated at the time - those members of the university who followed the tennet that text was all denigrated it as a 'knick-knackery.'
Yet this knick-knackery has created particular kinds of objects. One of the most iconic figures is, of course, the Oxford Dodo, the most complete surviving example of such a bird in existence, but which was destroyed bar its foot and head when it became too degraded to retain. This object has been used for scientific research, but also as poetic inspiration for Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. And this object, of course, was transfered to the University Museum of Natural History - so why is its story still relevant, and told, in the Ashmolean of the present?
Curious artefacts have a particular way of speaking. Trying to lay them out in a preset way often becomes a problem when we begin to deal with the speaking qualities of these objects. They demand their own kind of presence. But of course, our interaction with, and interpretation of, these items has changed over time. No longer seen as scientific specimens as much as objects which tell a story of an institution, its changes and its histories, illustrations of mutating understandings of objects and modes of display, old and strange curiosities occupy a very special, and powerful place within the museum, particularly in the odd, palimpsestual, old-new creature which is the Ashmolean.
Kelvingrove, as a 'memorable' and powerful space, a place of wonder recently overhauled and redisplayed, to enhance access to the building and its collections. But it still contains aspects which have often been perceived as mundane. Cleaning maintains and sustains the new museum. It creates status, and simulates newness through the manipulation of surface images. Analysis has focussed upon transformations and redisplay, but those more mundane museum activities have just as powerful a role in cultivating the high status of an institution.
Visitors, and use, bring with them what Taussig has termed 'transgressive subjects' - dirt, in other words - which threaten to undo that position as a world class heritage site which the museum can attain. Comparing this to other heritage attractions, the nature of the museum is very different. Dirt, in the museum, can really threaten that patina of newness, which heritage sites of other kinds do not necessarily see as so problematics. Museums are afeared of becoming 'Victorian dust-traps' - are they, perhaps, afraid of the acts of time? I wonder what the acceptance of entropy would mean for the museum and its status?
Newness is valued for its ability to dazzle, to create an event, created through novelty and redisplay. What, however, is the role of cleaning in creating that sense of newness? It figures it in a very different way, for it does not mitigate the impact of entropy and change, but works with it. Yet it, critical as it is, seems to occupy a rather neglected position in institutional bids for capital projects. But cleaning has to be done - and this act brings with it it's own problems. Professional territories are demarcated through methodologies and the claiming and definition of tools and substances. Claims to knowledge, skill and experience make the act of cleaning a particularly social one, and the need of people to establish different roles for this particular part of museum maintanence, and reflection upon those roles when lost, raise particular issues about relationships with others, and self-representation.
Cleaning, of course, permits a different vision of objects - it can make them more visible, though perhaps the operation itself can so often be made invisible. The mundane, as much as the spectacular, can dazzle and evoke. The complexities of change are made apparent in the everyday, and allow the new and not so new to co-exist. What is newness, who is it performed for, and how might it become enmeshed with the old? In foregrounding these everyday practices, we can see an underlying vitality in their interpretive and creative roles. In cleaning, as Bachelard noted, we can bring an object into being.
Imagine a happy space. Now make a memory token. Imagine a tin passed around the room, the contents of which you can exchange for your token, should you so desire. Lazarus' research focusses upon an ethnographic study of projects which support spirituality and mental health.
It began with a project which used neolithic Northumbrian rock art , which has the potential, through its great age, lost intention, and abstract form, for multiple meaning making and healing. These spaces, to me, are already spaces of wonderment. I can wonder in the landscape, even a landscape lacking in what we might classically term art, but in landscapes hewn and formed both by man and the movements of eons. But there is a sense about these works, a sense of sacredness which come from absence, but it is a place of sacred intimacy. You can, through these objects, touch a person who vanished long ago, or find something of yourself which you lost or never even knew. They are, for certain, spaces of healing, whether you have a faith or otherwise, for they are places which allow a reconnection with something very trancelike and ancient, something very embedded in our root-consciousness. In these places, we encounter art in a very physical way, can wonder barefoot in the stonescape and immerse ourselves in the water. We touch the earth and sky. We become a part of the world once more, particularly important in a world of simulated images. We take time, have a chance to be mindful and unburdened, present in the space and connected to that which we were missing. We can be inspired to make dreams, dreaming selves and other things, but dreams which can have a concrete, tangible, life changing result.
What difference is made when the interaction with these wonderful beings - for I do not like to call these living stones artefacts or objects - occurs within a museum space. For their placement is critical. In museums, they become labelled and interpreted. We encounter the rocks through the words written about them, not about the rocks themselves. The sensory experience is mediated, controlled - noise comes from other galleries - we are managed in our understanding of things. We labour at understanding, and often forget the information. We cannot touch. Unlike the encounter in the field, which can last many hours, in the museum each rock was gazed upon for an average of five seconds, but spent twenty reading the label, and much more time interacting with the virtual simulation. But some people are still brave enough to touch.
Museums should - and I think they can - learn from this distinct difference. They don't have to alienate people from artwork. They don't have to perpetuate that sense of dissociation which so pervades our culture. Admittedly there are difficulties, practical and social. But if we are to engage with spiritual objects, to have theraputic and engaging experience, to make true inspirational, moral and emotional connections, we have to tackle these difficult problems. For we can find wonder, we can register the impact of the object, create an exchange, reciprocation. If you had something which encapsulated that transformative, powerful feeling of the field, in tangible form, and could you bring that into the museum?
In passing around the tin, we've exchanged these things, created a hoard of wonderment, and taken away a tangible link which we can link to those emotional memories. There's a question here about the relationship between the sign-signified, about the nature of the authentic object which chimes with that questioning of Helen and Darko and Zeljka. What is the real object? Perhaps it is not the corporeal thing, the interpretation which surrounds it. Perhaps, rather, the object, and its transformative power, comes from being able to touch - in every possible emboddied and conceptual way - the emotional space between.
Combining the empirical methodologies of psychology with practical creativity and artistic practice, Helen's Unmuseum aims to combine objects which have not normally found a place within museal environments. What is it about these objects which accords them this non-museum status, I wonder? Is it to do with their (im)material form? Their social being? It's often unclear.
It's particularly unclear where the line is drawn between art and the everyday - particularly in the work of artists such as Joseph Beuys - and where the lines between the disciplines often appear. The idea of this workshop is to create an object which does not exist: whether some combination of real and unreal objects; an object you always wished existed; or anything you like.
In idea showers, we can reflect and record these objects, these never-were wishes. The room is silent, and heavy with potential. And in words, images and concrete form, we 'create' our unreal objects. People seem enraptured by their imaginations. There is a poetics about silence. These unreal objects will be deposited around the Museum Studies Building in a mutable artwork which we shall be free to recombine and move, to respond to and reinterpret. These will then get combined into a website, The Unmuseum. I'll get Helen to keep me informed of its' progression throughout the course of the conference, and when it goes online, I'll give you a link.
Who is the curator here? What are the traditional elements of museological practice which are retained in this project, and which are discarded? How can the museum interact with collaboration, with corporeality, with artistic and emotional creativity? How can the artist facilitate the relationship between the audience and the establishment? How much of this is subversion, and how much is the development of a mutally respectful dialogue? Academic research can cross boundaries, and different people can operate in different modes of being. As PhD researchers, we're particularly lucky to be able to investigate those disciplinary and social boundaries, combining and recombining our thoughts, practices and theories. I wonder as to the capacity of the human imagination for invention, for creating and accepting potential, and all the terror which it brings, as well as its wonderment. I'm creating my own Unmuseum object here, I suppose, in these words which are not that which they represent. Is it the words which are the never-were object - or the space between them and their original subject? All, I suppose, are differently valid, different kinds of record, of object.
In considering the left-over materials and stories of broken relationships, we can examine a number of notions of authority, for in the reflections left over, the personal story can tell a universal narrative. It is this interaction between the various elements which remain, which the Museum of Broken Relationships problematises.
Recently, the Museum of Broken Relationships, opened October 2010, has found itself a permanent home. All the objects are donated, to their own wishes and choices, accompanied by their own stories - the only condition is that they must have something to do with a broken relationship. The project began five years ago, when a couple broke up and didn't know what to do with their shared items. They conceived the idea of the museum, and the act of inviting other people to contribute. The first exhibition occured in Zagreb in 2006 received a lot of positive responses and many objects were donated. So they toured around Europe - and even ended up in the United States and have just received an invitation to exhibit in Buenos Aires.
The MBR problematises, too, the relationship between the artefact and the writing which accompanies it. In this museum, the two conjoin to perform the museum object - they are completely inseperable from each other, for without the text, the object becomes something totally other. The texts are very narrative, they tell stories, or provide little reflections upon the relationships which have been lost. These relationships might have been loving, hateful, religious, with institutions and faiths as well as with people.
This museum showcases how differently people utilze objects, in ways which are sometimes very ideosyncratic. People assign certain, often very personal meanings to these objects, in which ideas are emboddied, perhaps in some form of emotional release. The donation, then, to the museum, represents a kind of ritual clensing, a progression along the path of healing. Perhaps this is not just for the person donating the object, but about the audience who are visiting and veiwing them. In this way, the individual donor or viewer becomes yet another object-creator, for there is a process of creation which occurs, for the life of the object, beyond its material formation.
Every passion has a spectator, Barthes once said, and the museum is a place in which that spectatorial distancing can occur. But the placement of the objects in the museum accords a kind veracity to the objects, a rightness or interest to the act, however strange or inappropriate it may socially have been. The role of the curator is not to interpret the objects, but to arrange them in ways in which their meanings become apparent. But if the museum continues to collect objects based upon texts, what should they do about taxonomy - should they develop taxonomies of abstract notions, such as 'rage' or 'fury.' These are public exhibitions, a discourse of privacy in the world - there's a tension here. Is there the possibility for a right of reply? Should personal stories such as this be performed in the outer world?
These objects are often very strong, but with their highly public display, there is a willingness of to engage with the materiality of love, of loss, of the broken heart. The creation of shared spaces with which to engage with this dialogue creates an area in which the appropriateness of displaying particular objects can develop and be questioned. What is the role of the individual approach to artefacts, and the role of individual stories in museums, particularly in a commodified world of mass produced material culture? How can a curator approach this kind of material? Perhaps this willingness of the MBR to engage with abstract notions and personal stories points to a possible way forward. In the abstract, in the personal, in individuation and private interpretation, perhaps museums can find a place for themselves in this possible future, and the different approach to authenticity which this world might well require.