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

30 March 2011

Hop the Sixteenth - Of Polymaths and Collectors

Nhora Lucia Serrano, Leonardo da Vinci - Collector and Curio

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.

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