Museum Interventions

Museum Interventions: Collections as Inspiration
Michael Brennand-Wood, Deirdre Nelson, Sue Lawty & Caroline Bartlett

In Bruce Chatwin’s novella “Utz”, the author suggests that museum objects “must suffer the de-natured existence of an animal in the zoo.” He goes on to write, “In any museum an object dies – of suffocation and the public gaze – whereas private ownership confers on the owner the right and the need to touch.” This touch, Chatwin’s narrator concludes, “restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker.” The absence of touch is an undeniable fate of the museum ward. But too often, the public gaze is also absent, either through lack of public interest or, in the case of so many great collections, limited exhibition space. In Britain some of these challenges have been met through initiatives that invite contemporary artists to “intervene” in a museum’s permanent collection. These projects often result in temporary displays of contemporary work displayed alongside historic collections. Not only do they bring to light contemporary responses to treasures that may have been overlooked by curators, but they also return to the museum’s permanent collection a greater sense of dynamism and relevance to contemporary life.

Museum interventions offer the general public enormous insight into the creative process of practicing artists. Just as no museum collection contains the same objects, or is organized and catalogued in the same way, no two contemporary practitioners approach the opportunity of working directly with a museum collection in the same way. Nor do those that have had the opportunity to work with multiple collections draw inspiration the same way twice. Michael Brennand-Wood, Deirdre Nelson, Sue Lawty and Caroline Bartlett are all established British textile artists. Each has worked with several museum collections; Nelson and Bartlett have also created work in response to historic sites. The fact that the four are all textile artists should be understood in the broadest of terms. The materials they use and the inspiration they have gleaned from museum collections both questions and expands what defines textile practice today.

Systems of categorization, both early manual forms such as hand written labels, as well as our newly digitized world, determine much about an object’s life within a museum collection. Mislabeled or unlabeled objects may never reach the public eye, while decisions regarding categorization are key to an object’s relevance and accessibility within a collection. When Michael Brennand-Wood arrived at the Bankfield Museum in the north of England he turned his eye, as many textile artists would, to the textile collection of Edith Durham who donated her collection of textiles from the former Yugoslavia to the museum. The triptych assemblage “Provenance” was the outcome, inspired not by these textiles, but by the labels Brennand-Wood found these textiles to contain, objects he describes as “so much more evocative” than the objects they were attached to. The work, which is made of pieces of wood containing overlapping strips of hand written and typed labels that float haphazardly in three adjacent alcoves, addresses the textile collection without being a textile itself. But it also resonates on other levels. Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” may spring to the minds of those inclined towards art history, while the format of the triptych and figurative proportions suggest references to the Christian faith. But the layers go even deeper, as suggested through the work’s title. “You cannot look at what once was Yugoslavia without considering labels,” Brennand-Wood explains, reminding us that the textiles that first inspired this research were collected from a region torn apart by conflict over cultural and religious labels.

Brennand-Wood has also worked closely with the Italian 17th century lace collection at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, magnifying and translating the delicacy of thread into fiberboard, cloth and thick layers of acrylic paint. His choice of materials is driven by a desire to “reinvent lace from a male perspective,” explaining that the association of lace with femininity is a relatively recent historical association. Dr Jennifer Harris, Deputy Director and Curator of Textiles at the Whitworth explains that Brennand-Wood’s response to the collection “demonstrates how museum collections can be used by living artists to re-interpret historical examples both technically and conceptually.” When displayed alongside examples of the samples that inspired the work, viewers can begin to see the dialogue being established between the contemporary and the historic, bringing new relevance and understanding to both.

Sue Prichard, curator of contemporary textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum believes that artist-in-residence Sue Lawty’s recent work with the collection “provides a critical link in the chain which connects the historic with the contemporary, the traditional with the innovative, the elemental with the spiritual. Moving across disciplines, Sue defends the right to both assimilate and change the past, whilst continuously focusing on the importance of the journey.” Lawty joins Brennand-Wood as an artist who has identified the language to be found within museum collections as a considerable source of inspiration. In Lawty’s case a haunting, unfinished red sampler at the V&A inspired her to reconsider the role language might play in her own work. The sampler tells of the creator’s thoughts of suicide and the meaningless of life. Lawty shifts this language in her tapestry “Silent Witness” woven to celebrate the magnificence of seeing the Hale-Bopp comet in our skies. The text is subtle, not the blood red the sampler uses, but struggle between the value and insignificance of life is apparent in both works.

Lawty is also a relentless collector, amassing and classifying natural and manmade objects. Small stones and pebbles have found their way into recent work, archives in their own right that bestow value on the modest through Lawty’s keen eye for pattern. June Hill, until recently the Museum Officer at Bankfield Museum near Lawty’s home describes the relationship Lawty has developed with the museum collection over the course of twenty years and the subsequent major project undertaken with the Bankfield collection, the V&A and The Gallery at Ruthin, in Wales. “When Sue arranges a study visit,” she explains, “there are certain textiles you just know she will be eager to see again and share with others: particular pieces that retain an influence on Sue and her work as it continues to develop.” In Lawty’s case museum collections are an ongoing, central aspect of her practice. One suspects they may be as vital as a sketchbook or camera – core resources to her ongoing practice.

The protocols of categorization and preservation is a theme also taken up by Caroline Bartlett who has worked closely with several museum collections and historic sites, often drawing inspiration from her scrutiny of how museums preserve order and longevity within their collections. Commissioned by the Whitworth Art Gallery, “Conversation Pieces” evolved, in the artist’s words, “from observation of, and dialogue with the keepers, archivist, curators and conservators who work with the textile collection at the Gallery.” Bartlett suggests that when objects become a part of a museum collection they become “physically disengaged from their historical period and place of origin.” This shift opens up a space for “new associations and different readings [to be] imposed on objects. New intimacies and histories are formed,” she explains “between the artifact and those that handle, conserve, record and present them within the museological and institutional systems.” A long, thin work displayed rambling across a table, “Conversation Pieces” makes visual these new relationships. Pairs of hands framed in embroidery hoops and layered with text from the museum’s archive suggest the variety of contacts textile collections are exposed to, from maker and historian to curator and conservator. Moving around the work, the printed imagery fades in and out of focus just as each individual’s relationship to the object bares different levels of clarity.

Deirdre Nelson is another contemporary practitioner who has worked extensively with museum collections around the British Isles. Her first work with a museum collection culminated in the exhibition “My Dear John” in 2002 and was the result of an invitation to work with the Ford Ranken glass archive at the Museum of Edinburgh at Huntley House. Like Brennand-Wood, Nelson stumbled by chance upon a series of letters of the Ford/Rankin family while viewing their glass collection. The letters, rather than the objects, inspired her investigation of contemporary communication technology through works that juxtaposed the speed with which we are able to communicate today with the time the written word demands, and the speed of new digital print technologies with the time hand embroidery requires. In her extensive work since then, Nelson continues to draw on folklore, myths and the words that surround objects in museum collections for inspiration.

Just how do these collaborations come about? At a recent conference panel on the topic at the Sign Post to a New Space Conference it became apparent that museum staff are often as unsure how to invite artists into their collections as artists are insure how to obtain invitations. They are not, as some may assume, only available to established artists. Nelson advises: “Research the museum before you contact them. It is about creating opportunities for yourself, but you have to be sensitive to people’s working environments.” She admits that it is only hindsight that has allowed her to realize that the confidence she gained from her first experience working at the Edinburgh Museum was largely due to the tact and sensitivity of the museum staff. Hill explains that building trust between the artist and the museum is not simply a matter of caring for the collection. Providing a nurturing atmosphere for the artist “can provide an environment in which people are able to make themselves vulnerable within a supportive framework. This in itself seems valuable in encouraging a creative approach (at different levels) and in removing a sense of fear or constraint that can hinder experimentation and the pushing of ones practice.”

If working within museum collections demands no small talent in diplomacy and negotiation, then working within the grounds of a historic site can pose an even greater challenge. Nelson’s series of digitally printed images of embroidered flowers installed at Gibside, a National Trust property in Scotland, faced considerable challenges when it came time to display the work. Restrictions meant that no changes or alterations could be made to ruins. This request did not seem unreasonable until gale force winds were forecast for the exhibition week, requiring further last minute advice from a structural engineer assisting with the project. Similarly, Bartlett’s installation “Codices” responded to the limitations posed by the ancient Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmund’s by creating an ephemeral work. Stitching a sampler of partially erased Latin text into the grounds where the Abbey’s library once stood, Bartlett returned the site its former identity as a keeper of language. By partially erasing the text access was denied to all viewers, even the few who read Latin today. Over time, the grass reclaimed the entire text and the project disappeared, leaving no material trace of the texts of a long gone library, but dramatically increasing the public’s understanding of the site’s former life.

Why aren’t such projects more common? Funding is, of course, one answer. But in many cases, the relationship that institutions such as the Whitworth and Bankfield have fostered with artists is the result of hard work by committed individuals within the museum, rather than a financial windfall. Initiatives such as these are of great benefit to the artist, museum staff and perhaps most importantly the viewing public who are given the opportunity to see established collections in a new way. But the importance of collections being available to artists in person cannot be underestimated, in particular because inspiration often grows from secondary details not contained in catalogues or online records. These projects make very clear that contemporary artists can establish dialogues with the past that are far different from those provided by historians; they represent one artistic voice responding to another, often across decades and even centuries.

Surface Design Journal (summer 2006: 17-24)

image: Caroline Bartlett "Bodies of Knowledge, Volume 5: Arbiters of Taste" (2003)