Narrative Remains by Artist Karen Ingham
Reading about and discussing the Hunterian Museum reminded me of my many visits there while living in London last year. Although the museum seems to have lost much of its glory if I see the images of the building before it was partly destroyed in 1941, the collection is still an inspiring one. The museum was never busy and I found it a wonderful environment to ponder the many strangely beautiful and extremely visceral specimens, both human and animal. I particularly enjoyed the installation by Karen Ingham titled ‘Narrative Remains’ which revealed the human stories behind some of the displayed specimens. These very personal stories enabled the visitor to interact with the display on a level beyond the anatomical and encouraged the viewer to reflect on their own mortality. Through initiating an interaction between the display and the past, Ingham was able to enrich the interaction between the same display and the visitor and so emphasized the relevance of the specimens in a contemporary context. The Hunterian Museum continues to invite artists working in a variety of media to reinterpret and react on their collections which is a valuable tool to make their collections more relevant and accessible to visitors today. If you are interested you can read about these exhibitions and collaborations here.
I read this article – ‘Not So Fast’ by John Freeman a few weeks ago and considering our ongoing discussions about the use of new media and specifically the internet by museums I think it is very relevant. Though it doesn’t discuss the museum context as such it looks at the increasing speed of communication and impersonal nature of social interactions. These two elements, communication and social interaction are vital for any museum so I found it interesting to apply the thought process presented in this article to the discussion around internet use in and beyond the walls of the museum. There is one statement that I found particularly profound: “Attention is one of the most valuable modern resources.” This is surely true if we consider the amount of time and money various businesses and institutions spend on fighting for it! And yes, it does seem to be in short supply as we waste it continually on unimportant information. The little attention we have left is then spread thinly over too many things leading to shallow understanding and a lack of reflection. I believe that museums (and other cultural institutions) are the places where this resource can be cultivated and replenished. Far from needing to keep up with the speed with which we function these days, museums should be places where we can slow down and think. This is not to say that the internet should not be used at all. I think it has the potential to be used in ways that can encourage reflection and ultimately restore our ability to focus and learn rather than deplete it.
It seems there is a very real danger of losing touch with the real objects and artefacts that are the essence of the museum. With the rise of digital media and the increasing investment in the online and interactive presence of museums, people becoming less inclined to interact with the real objects. As referred to in the ‘Themes and Threads’ of this course the status of the object is under threat. I would suggest that we need to reconnect with the objects around us whether in a museum or not in order to develop an awareness of their value and meaning. The book How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum by Keri Smith presents a playful way to do this. It contains a series of ‘explorations’ or assignments that challenge the reader to interact with and collect the objects in their environment and create personal museum.
The answer to Stephen Conn’s book title and provocative question: Do Museums Still Need Objects? has to be YES, right?
As we discussed in class, the “self” is a relatively recent invention. It seems that this shift has had a profound influence particularly on western society as we know it today but also more specifically the role of the museum and expectations and perception of the visitor. It has forced the museum to adapt radically in order to successfully compete with contemporary forms of media/entertainment. The Century of the Self is BBC four-part documentary series by Adam Curtis which reveals the fascinating process of the ‘invention’ of public relations and the move from ‘need’ to a ‘desire’ based society. It shows the context within which museums have developed over the last century and indirectly why they are what they are today. You can watch the series on Google videos. Part 1 is called Happiness Machines. Enjoy!
Photograph by Norbert Schoerner
Blythe House in London is the archive for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s extensive collections of fashion and textile, furniture, ceramics, jewellery and fine arts. It is within this incredible building, usually closed to the public, that the fashion curator Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips created ‘The Concise Dictionary of Dress’. The exhibition consisted of a guided tour through the building in a small group passing by various installations, designed and assembled by Clark and accompanied by definitions created by Phillips. This awe-inspiring archive creates a unique atmosphere that aroused curiosity and allowed the visitor to lose themselves in this maze of hallways lined by cabinets and rooms filled with movable storage units. The installations emerged from unexpected places, subtly drawing on associations to the stored objects surrounding them. This exhibition provided a unique experience, which redefined the way one perceives the presence and absence of the body and clothing and challenged the boundary between the stored/preserved object and the displayed. You can find more information at www.artangel.org.uk
Here is a short trailer that gives a preview of the exhibition.