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24 October 2011

The Museum of Museums

In Taunton, 'The Museum of Somerset' (previously Taunton Museum) has just re-opened after a 6.93 Million re-development. In Bristol 'The Industrial museum' has been revamped into what is now called 'The M Shed' and in Bath The Holburne museum (see fifth image below) has also had a massive 13.8 million pound transformation in the form of a glass extension to added onto the original building. With all of these re-vamped and modernised re-openings of museums in the South West as well as the exhibition titled, 'The Museum Show' now open at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol it definitely feels like museums really are 'the flavour of the month'. Two weekends ago I popped down to the Arnolfini to find out if this was the case...

Featuring the work of over 40 artists this is no small show and to my delight included some old favourites and some fantastic new ones. I was not disappointed. Susan Hiller's 'After the Freud Museum', Duchamp's 'Boite-en-Valise' (the retrospective of the artists work in a suitcase) and Peter Blake's 'A Museum for Myself' are three museum inspired pieces on show in this exhibition that I have previously seen before, however it was fantastic to see them again without having to have made the pilgrimage to London and in the context of a show of museum inspired art. What is quite unusual about an exhibition of museum inspired work is the context, i.e normally a lot of the work on show in this exhibition would be in an actual museum where as here you have almost the opposite. The element of surprise of seeing work by an artist in a museum is part of the point of using the museum as a context to make work and play with interpretation. In the Arnolfini show having all of those museum inspired art works in an 'art context' of the gallery brings the viewers attention to the work in a different way again or as the Arnolfini describes the show as, 'a museum of museums'.

The museums on offer include: 'The Museum of Failure' by Ellen Harvey, 'The Museum of Safety Gear for Small Animals by Bill Burns (which I recommend you looking at the website for, The Davis Museum (a.k.a the smallest contemporary art museum in the world), 'Museum of Contemporary African Art' by Meschac Gaba, 'Moon Museum' (which sees the first-and most smallest works of art to land on the moon)by Forrest Myers, 'Voting Booth Museum' by Guillaume Biji (proves you can learn so much about a countries politics from the style of their voting booths) and 'The Museum of personality testing' by Sina Najafti and Christopher Turner to name but a few! It really is a mix of the ridiculous and the sublime.

A personal highlight for me was Herbet Distel's 'The Museum of Drawers' which holds 500 miniature artworks collected during the 1960's and 70's. Yes! So we have, David Hockey, Andy Warhol, Sol Lewitt, Joesph Beuys, John Cage, Claes Oldenburg, George Rickey, Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine and many many more all in little 2.25" wide and 1 11/16" high spaces within 20 drawers. Looking at the collection and the list for ages all I could think was how many cool artists were there in the 60's and 70's! And on a serious note the idea of drawers and collections in art generally is something that appeals to me as a person, maybe because I naturally without trying seem to collect lots of books and strange what can only politely be described as 'bits of tat', but whatever the reasons I thought this work was great.

On a completely different tone, the 'World Agriculture Museum' shown off site as part of the Arnolfini exhibition, is a much more global and thought provoking affair. The museum, curated by Asuncion Molinios', is set in what was previously Bristol Police Station. Inside the museum feels more like a theatre or stage-set in the way it is quite dimly lit and in the empty and dusty space which is quite haunting and creepy (its a creepy old police station not a smart shiny new one) there are cases of hundreds of different seeds and information on the doomsday vault in the North Pole (supposedly that contains seeds from all plant life on Earth). Anyway, it is an interesting collection and touches upon ideas in agriculture from food production to folklore. With news stories of the world's rapidly increasing population over the last few years which is set to rise even higher; all of which will put greater pressure and need on food production and how we grow food, this whole piece feels incredibly topical as well.

Whether we have museums being used in art or having art in museums are two ways in which these artists have used the concept of 'The Museum' in their work. There are many more variations of this all throughout art history and the history of how we collect, curate and display art works, artifacts and history and anthropology. It is, however, very exciting to see how artists take the museum as an institution and use it, parody it or interpret it in different ways of which this exhibition represents that diversity of what can be done with museums in a very successful way.

This is only part one of what is a two part exhibition (the second part to come in December) so I really recommend you paying this a visit.
For more details visit:

I think my own recent bias (see image above of one of my pieces of work influenced by museum collections) working with the collection of agricultural tools at The Somerset Heritage Centre could have had a distinct influence in my interest in writing this post.
But, I'm not alone in this either, Jon England (see image below) has also worked with a museum, 'The Fleet Air Arm Museum' in Yeovilton on his recent project, 'Operation Chameleon' which can be seen until December. I have written on this blog before about what I believe to be just some of the benefits of an artist working with a museum and how the presentation of that research can make certain artifacts in museums collections more accessible to the public or present new interpretations of existing collections to new audiences.

(below) The Holburne Musuem, Bath

Finally, if you are still not convinced that museums are 'where its at' then look no further than the also very recent exhibition by Grayson Perry in The British Museum, 'The tomb of the unknown craftsman' (image below) where the artist has made his distinctive styled work in the form of ceramics and tapestries and then looked to the museum collection to find pieces that are similar, or in the artists own words, 'All I could do was choose the things that fascinated and delighted me.' The result is an exhibition that combines the two old and new side by side. Perry is no stranger to working with museums and has used artifacts alongside his own collections before in the piece 'Charms of Linconshire'. I've yet to visit this exhibition and I think it goes without saying that I'm obviously going to visit it soon, but I wanted to share it with you here as it fits so well with this post. Some of Perry's observations I've read in news articles that talk about his experiences working with museums and their curators has been particularly poignant for me recalling my own experiences working with the curators in the Somerset Heritage Centre. He says, 'Curators seemed to like nothing better than showing off the treasures in their care. Their profound enthusiasm I found infectious and endearing.' So true. As you walk around these massive and often quite cold 'warehouse-like' storage spaces where all the artifacts are boxed and catalogued, there is nothing better than to be in those spaces than with someone who knows exactly where to find the thatcher's whimbrel you're looking for, or the collection of gloves maker's tools and then can tell you all about those things. It really is wonderful and that's coming from, me, someone who never studied or really liked history.

So, with lots of attention on all these newly opened museums there's a lot of opportunity to discover and re-discover some remarkable objects, people and stories. Museums don't necessarily always hold the truth, with a lot of theorists believing that history has always been a matter or interpretation and who has been doing the interpreting. This leads the way nicely for artists to make their own interpretations or accept existing ones and how we may then choose to use that knowledge in our own work or to say something about our own time.

That is where things start to get really exciting.

For more details on 'The Tomb of the unknown Craftsman' click on the link below:

1 comment:

  1. It sounds cool: museum of museums. Iwanna visit it, it's really interesting.