What a start to our Wunderkammer road trip over by Oxford, Cambridge and London. This Tuesday we set off on our way to our first stop in Oxford, The Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology, founded in 1683, it is Britain’s oldest public museum and one of the oldest museums in the world.
We were bombarded with an array of extraordinary collections, representing most of the world’s great civilisations, with objects dating from 8000 BC to the present day. Its collections range from Egyptian mummies to Pre-Raphaelite paintings to contemporary art. I ponder the importance of curating contemporary art in contrast with work that has been made throughout the ages. The approach is based on the idea that civilisations that have shaped our modern societies developed as part of an interrelated world culture, rather than in isolation. Every object has a story to tell, and these are uncovered through comparisons and connections, tracing the journey of ideas and influences through the centuries and across continents.
I was specially intrigued by the cleaver use of glass and display on this stunning new wing, built part a major development plan back in 2009. Different civilizations speak with one another in ways that have never been seen before. For example 15th century Greece just across 15th century India and 13th century Africa by 13th century China. In real historical terms, these civilizations did communicate with one another. It’s just fantastic to see those conversations being kept up by the artefacts in the institution in current times.
Just the sheer amount of stuff displayed in such a peculiar way makes you sometimes displaced and often lost, but you begin questioning the links between artefacts, crossing cultures which are translated through cultural history.
Still in Oxford, we went to the much-anticipated Pitt Rivers Museum, which wasnt too far from the Ashmolean. Going inside Oxford University Museum of Natural History which is the gateway to Pitt Rivers, I was fully immersed already. Observing the neo-Gothic cast iron pillars which mimic intellectually the structure of their specimens’ skeletons left me intrigued.
As well as the specimens, there was an exciting exhibition by Levon Biss which I previously have seen a little video on. Microsculpture (name of exhibition) was a contemporary approach to present insects like I never seen before. The clarity and detail in the three metre prints brings normally unseen beauty to the audience, allowing them to study these stunning creatures in minute detail. Similarly to the Ashmolean where contemporary art is displayed with work from the past, here the same thing is done but in a different context, possible to bring new audiences to the museum.
After a while I realized that the actual Pitt Rivers Museum was just behind this little door right at the back of the natural history museum. And boy was I impressed. Completely different approach to display as the museum’s collection is arranged thematically, according to how the objects were used, rather than according to their age or origin. This layout owes a lot to the theories of Pitt Rivers himself, who intended for his collection to show progression in design and evolution in human culture from the simple to the complex. Whilst this evolutionary approach to material culture is no longer fashionable in archaeology and anthropology, the museum has retained the original organisation of the displays. The display of many examples of a particular type of tool or artifact, showing historical and regional variations, is an unusual and distinct feature of this museum.
Completely immersive experience, perhaps a bit too immersive in which each single artefact has a story attached to it and then questions begin to immerse around the interpretation of narratives in which a range of items might have in common.From Oxford we drove to Cambridge where we spent our whole second day of the trip. After a long and well deserved night’s sleep at the youth hostel we headed to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. Established in 1728 as the Woodwardian Museum, since then the collection has grown from about 10,000 fossils, minerals and rocks, to at least 2 million. A walk through the museum takes you on a 4.5 billion year journey through time.
Although some interesting collections were presented and were a good resource for research, learning and enjoyment, I was more intrigued by the discolouration on the varnished wood door which was casted from the sunlight directed from an open door on the opposite side. This comes to show the importance of museums and their vast efforts to preserve items in ways which don’t compromise their display.
A swift shift to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology which I found some intriguing propositions around the themes of curation, preservation and public involvement. But prior to that, I passed by “Hide and Seek: Looking for Children in the Past”, an exhibition that glimpsed at children lives in East Anglia and across England from 1 million years ago to the 20th century. Comically there are some labels just next to these characterful coiled pots from eastern England which mock and praise each single piece. Me, loving to experiment with techniques and materials recently have been exploring coiling a bit more in-depth; however my work doesn’t compare to how straight and perfect some of these are perhaps because I’m not looking at functionality as to say where “form follows function”, (Bauhaus) in which in more privative times a pot had to be a pot to follow its function.
‘[What Craftsman] is so negligent of his child’s profit that he does not instruct him in crafts when he is young…?’
– John Fortescue, c.1470
Moving forwards, looking at curation in this institution, objects seem to flow more at ease, perhaps my understanding and acknowledgement is slightly improving when it comes to making connections between them and narratives start to enrol. Or simply the curation is just carefully though through in terms of its context.
When it comes to preservation, it is a very touchy subject as in what to and not to do. Looking at the very skilled and precise Zisha teapots which have been made since the 16th century in the town of Dingshu, in the Jiangsu Province of China, the following question is pondered: Can a museum participate in the transformation of an object?
It is said that the more zisha pots are used, the more beautiful they become. The pots are seasoned by repeatedly pouring tea over then when in use. The deposit left on the unglazed surface is rubbed into the clay with a cloth, creating a patina over time.
Artisan GeTaozhong asked collector Geoffrey Gowlland to ‘care for’ his pots, by periodically seasoning it with tea. This caused a dilemma, museums typically aim to maintain the original condition of objects. But GeTaozhong’s request made cultural sense. In China, patina and other signs of age are important attributes of valued objects. In temples people rub stone and bronze statues for good luck, creating smooth and shiny surfaces that are signs of the object’s efficacy.
Museum staff decide to season the pots to enhance its beauty and cultural value. The teapot begun to acquire a sheen, but it will only develop the patina envisaged by its maker with further care.
Another point that interested me at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is its public engagement. The museum has a collaborative experiment where they are planning to create an archaeology gallery space on the top floor for which the public can give their input in ways the gallery can integrate in a creative and informative manner innovative solutions to different ideas, different forms of display or different themes. A solution which might engage more people to visit its institution.
Our final stop in Cambridge was the institution which I researched a bit more in-depth, The Fitzwilliam Museum. I was completely blown away by the monumental size of the building.
We were taken on a valuable tour by Victoria, one of the museum’s curator. Our first stop was of course the exceptionally rare Cabinet of Curiosities, a masterpiece of German and Italian mid-17th-century craftsmanship. A pivotal point of interest for this project overall. Wunderkammer of this sort were commissioned by status-conscious rulers and aristocrats across Europe to demonstrate their intellectual interests and wealth, and to act as conversation pieces. The cabinet we looked contained at last forty drawers and ingenious secret compartments, all lined with exotic silks, marbled paper or intricate wood marquetry. These would have contained both natural and man-made curiosities.
Furthermore, Victoria took us to possibly my favourite room in the museum if not of the trip. Being surrounded by 14th-15th century Italian paintings and in the middle having the odd, even provocative contrasting Spanish statue of baby Jesus, was not quite the outbreak of my trip, but the space in which these painting were hung. Similarly to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, where the light casted on the varnished door has discoloured the wood, at the Fitzwilliam, the room once painted gold has almost a tan line of its previous painting creating a halo on paintings that are hung at the moment. It would be a great proposal to remove all the art work from the walls and explore the propositions that this could trigger in us, the viewer. I believe although museums have a responsibility to display history around the world, often this history is dictated in ways which only what ‘they’ want to show us is shown and through out the ages history is lost and only moments is history that are wanted to be remembered are dictated in museums, schools, books… I’m so glad the curators have maintained the space as it and not painted it as it was once before.
Extremely busy day in Cambridge with loads to think about. The next day we travelled to our last point on the map this week, London. Our first stop in London was the dazzling Sir John Soane’s Museum London.
The Soane’s Museum was a surreal experience. It basically was a massive cabinet of curiosities in a monumental scale, in which everywhere we looked we discovered something intriguing. This historic house, museum and library of distinguished 19th century architect Sir John Soane has been left untouched since his death, almost 180 years ago, followed by his request.
Unfortunately I was unable to take any photographs; we can’t even sketch; but often this takes away from the whole experience, in which we live in a world where we are consumed by visual imagery and tend to forget the present and what is happening in our surroundings. I particularly enjoyed the painting room, perhaps for it to be unexpected where paintings were just being pulled out from behind other painting as if we were on an actual wunderkammer. Only first hand experience can dictate the whole momentum.
In addition, I went on an exclusive private tour where I managed to see Soane’s wife’s dressing room, his model room which includes an impressive replica in cork of Pompeii and his Bedroom. Our tour guide told us a few stories about Soane’s and his family; However I was captivated by his desire to maintain his legacy even after his death. Two months before his death in 1836, Soane sealed three separate containers; his bath tub, his dressing room and his drawers, with the instruction that they should be opened one at a time on 22 November (Eliza’s death date) in 1866, 1886, and 1896. Each time, the media worked itself into a frenzy; would they discover a painting by Soane’s good friend Turner locked inside? But each time the same disappointing assortment of newspaper cuttings, cheques, professional correspondence, old card cases, false teeth, lottery tickets and Eliza’s knitting needles emerged along with his canny wit from beyond the grave.
Just across Lincoln’s Inn Fields, we went to the Hunterian Museum. It houses one of the oldest collections of anatomical, pathological and zoological specimens in the UK and is based on the items assembled by John Hunter, surgeon and anatomist. The collection comprises more than 3,500 anatomical and pathological preparations, fossils, paintings and drawings.
Massive debates around the theme of ethics in what should be displayed and what shouldn’t and understandably why photography is not allowed. You do not need to have a scientific mind, just a curious mind. This is more than just your average shock or weird stuff exhibition, the museum is the thrill of the curious, the academic, the gory and of course the just plain bizarre. Every display piece offers some kind of opportunity for learning about human and animal physiology in a way that books and pictures can’t really provide.
Similarly, the Wellcome Collection displays an unusual mixture of medical artifacts and original artworks exploring ‘ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art’. Its permanent exhibition, “Medicine Now”, presents a range of ideas about science and medicine since Henry Wellcome’s death in 1936. It reflects the experiences and interests of scientists, doctors and patients. Within the huge field of medicine this exhibition attempts to focus on only a few topics: the body, genomes, obesity and living with medical science.
Something that i was especially intrigued about was the work displayed by The Institute of Plastination. Once again themes around ethics emerge and Gunther von Hagens plays around with these themes for research and scientific purposes, but artistic nevertheless.
Another permanent exhibition, “Medicine Man” reunites a cross-section of extraordinary objects from Henry Wellcome’s collection, ranging from diagnostic dolls to Japanese sex aids, and from Napoleon’s toothbrush to George III’s hair. It also provides a very different perspective on some of our own obsessions with medicine and health.
I found that a younger audience was present in this institution in contrast with others we have visited before. Perhaps the gory interest we have for these themes which are curated in such a contemporary way, relevant to the times. In addition, having the incorporation of sensorial ways of experiencing the work brings bigger audiences to exhibitions; for example the use of touch to feel a Van Gogh etching and braille labels for those visually impaired.
“Making Nature”, a major exhibition which examined what we think, feel and value about other species and the consequences this has for the world around us. It brought together over 100 fascinating objects from literature, film, taxidermy and photography to reveal the hierarchies in our view of the natural world and consider how these influence our actions, or inactions, towards the planet.
Organised around four themes; ‘Ordering’, ‘Displaying’, ‘Observing’ and ‘Making’; this exhibition questioned the approach of ‘learning through looking’, charts the changing fashions of museum displays alongside society’s changing attitudes to the world around us, examined the search for an authentic encounter with nature, and looked at how humans have intentionally altered other organisms.
I thought our last visit was a bit rushed and would like to explore it more in the near future. It has simply been just an immersive three days in which so much information has been forced fed upon us. Just can’t wait for next week for which we are going to go through Birmingham, Yorkshire and Manchester, and hopefully having had this experience I will begin making connections and examine museums more carefully.