The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2011

Hop the Fourteenth - Of Art and Other Things

Keith Wilson, Keynote: Things at the Wellcome Collection

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.

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