In the summer of 2010 I was fortunate to be shown around the Museum's collections 1 . Visiting as an artist I was keenly aware of how the experience continually oscillated between marvelling at artefacts and trying to make sense of it all. The museum's collections are much larger than one might expect (only 5% of the store is on show at any one time). It is like a wallowing iceberg, mostly invisible to the public, 'deep frozen' for future possible consumption, and cared for by a largely unseen staff of nearly 50 people.
Exploring this hidden and unknowable world of the museum's collection is a voyage into uncharted waters'. What we learn of ourselves is equal in measure to what we learn of the external world.
My guiding 'compass' during this process became the metaphor of map-making - our quest to fix and make certain of our knowledge despite being aware of the impossibility of the task. We are all cartographers - aiming for a completeness that can only ever be provisional. We aim to identify what is significant and manageable, and distinguish it from what is superfluous and overwhelming. What we keep, and why we do it at all, are fascinating questions. The museum's collection is the raw, un-mapped material of the cartographer's craft - pregnant with the sense of its own endeavour, tragic and affirming, futile and noble.
Of course, my attempt to write about this situation is also entangled with the same paradox. In the end, the set of quick notes, made immediately after the visit seemed to offer the best and most truthful map. These notes are what follows below. They provide a detailed and reflexive account and adopt a phenomenological mode of enquiry2. As well as aiming to give insight into the essential nature of the collection and the act of collecting, they also reveal the ground from which my first artistic intentions emerged - a development which culminated in the two drawings made over the following 8 months.
11.30am - July 20th 2010 - Overcast, windy, and raining.
The 'spirit store' (the best ever name) is located in the disused public toilets! - a juxtaposition to revel in - too many connotations to map, too loaded, I don't want to get 'bogged' down at the start! Rack upon rack of jars, circular scientific ones, flat slab sided ones. A jar containing a small John Dory, a snake, a shark. Flesh becomes rubbery. Liquids evaporate. The collection needs conserving (topping up, refreshing, re-sealing). It's an expert job. Even in death and supposed stasis - preservation is not stable. We are always needing to hold back decay - wanting to hold back death. In the spirit store death is equated with a loss of form. The door stays open to avoid fumes building up. Power sockets are half way up the wall as a precaution. Hemispherical roof lights, glass eyes to the sky. A location very close to the public domain but feeling walled off - bricked up - annexed. Formaldehyde preserves colour - alcohol does not - but I couldn't see any colour at all! A white snake with black spots, four baby turtles also pale. Glass jars in red plastic trays. Yellow and clear liquids. The knowledge (faith?) that specimens can still be rescued / restored if dried out or mouldy. At once a resurrection and a requiem. What is it that we think we are preserving?
Fine Art store (below the main museum). A basement, the smell of parquet flooring, sounds of dehumidifier / air conditioner… subterranean. It used to be a hall for public lectures. Accessed from an outside stair, descending in a fault line between the museum and the library. Now a working store - paintings hung on heavy gauge metal mesh fixed to blue metal sliding frames. Metal plates on the floor to give it protection. Everything in the dark until people arrive!
Next store - next-door? Drawings, watercolours. Kept in blue portfolio boxes (they have a special name I can't remember) which are kept in wooden cabinets. Cupboards, drawers, lots and lots of them. The storage system comes first, people inhabit the gaps. I try to photograph the darkness that hides in the store and the light visible beyond it.
Another store; China, porcelain, archaeology. Large freestanding cabinets with sliding glass doors. Large plates, chargers, many jars and ornaments, ancient terracotta. Not so constricted, a pleasant sense of layers and space carrying on through. A chance to see more of the collection all at once - easier to make connections between things, and with things. Having all of the information visible at once, but mapped within the physical hierarchy of the cabinets, fosters creative insight. I wonder if what is visible in the cabinets is exhibited more frequently than what is not visible - out of sight, out of mind?
Naturally, what is selected for exhibition is based on an individual curators' knowledge and relationship to the collection (like browsing the library shelves is better than searching the catalogue). I wonder which are their favourite artefacts, which are the Cinderella artefacts? Another office chair and a desk squeezed in - people and artefacts are merged together.
Where to put it all? Like landed gentry taking care of their endless heirlooms, everything feels like a personal and precious possession. Everything is bound up with the staff. I imagine that the artefact's stories are 'owned' by the staff as if they were the staff's own personal histories. Are the staff artefacts too? The exercise of collecting and cataloguing extends, and surely makes them wonder how they themselves should be labelled?
To one side, along one wall is a moveable shelving system. Then, behind the shelving, hanging on the wall, are some tribal weapons, spears. Blunt points, leaf shaped blades, rows of sharks teeth bound to a head, (some with neurotoxins still on their tips) murder, mystery, danger. Had they been forgotten or hidden here?3
How to organise these things, how to name things?4 By age, use, colour, size, material, whole or broken ("If it's whole it's art, if it's broken it's archaeology")?
There are many stories for each artefact. The artefacts are conduits, or catalysts for people to recite a chosen story (or a story that chooses them)5 .
What is the essence of this activity? Reconciling oneself with the irreconcilable tensions of life. In one sense preservation seems to be a kind of refusal to 'let go' of what has died and should be respectfully released - yet it does hold things back so that we might know them. Preservation is resistance. But what is the value of these disused diving costumes, gas cookers, beetles genitalia? It feels as though one is losing touch with the ability to discern a proper purpose or sense of reality - who decides what that is?
Drawing helps. The time and care that it demands results in a way of knowing something so that it is fully assimilated and no longer remains external.6 It lives on within us and also changes us. Things can be 'let go' after being drawn. It affords reconciliation with the oppositions inherent within the task of living - a task where one is compelled to collect and catalogue and serve and preserve, and protect and risk, whilst all the time knowing the project is incomplete and essentially uncompletable. The task is tragic. There is always more than can be possessed. The naming and the cataloguing is always provisional and unfinished. The categories and hierarchies and interrelationships are always flawed - but the unified wholeness of a drawing transcends it.7
The Annexe building :- a large store, again artificially lit. A valuable bequeathed mineral collection appears. All organised by a numerical system based on elements and their purity (Buddhist or Nazi?). Beautiful specimens, all looking rather dead in the drawers. One grieves at how we can overlook the difference between storage and display.
A rolling, moveable system of shelves. Its handles are large black leather bound winding wheels. We wind the shelves along, cupboard doors and handles nudge and bump into each other. Amongst the shelves are animals and birds - all double wrapped in plastic bags. They all need bagging to protect against a type of beetle infestation (I immediately forget its name) and get put into a deep freeze on their return from being on loan. The two bags ensure (somehow) that there is no condensation on the specimen. Everything from swans to humming birds, ducks to eagles. They look like vacuum packed stock in a supermarket (all that is missing are the bar codes). All is held in suspended animation.8 Some, like the small packaged blue tit, are just stiff and prone and dead - something has truly gone from them. Any museum labels should respectfully begin 'dearly departed ...' before noting the species and gender. Other creatures are preserved in life-like poses. Their postures lend them the expectant air of 'waiting', but at the same time, by being made to seem more vital they 'scream out' their death more loudly. Is there a common root between taxonomy and taxidermy? Is something essential killed by cataloguing? Is the selectivity of a list anathema to life or also the source of it?
At the end of this row of shelving is another bequeathed collection of river fauna. Twenty thousand small glass cylinders, all dated, GPS located, labelled by hand - one weeps with joy at such a sacrifice. Like the minerals they are not much to look at. They need human engagement in order to reveal their beauty and wisdom. They are not lost, but they are held in abeyance - purgatory I suppose? Things exist only in our relationship with them. Again, our engagement soothes our emotional tension with loss and mortality. Whilst preserving knowledge for further generations the act of collection is also a defensive strategy for countering the risks and dangers of life, and even of death (especially the fear of death). Through collecting, the collector secures their own life-world against oblivion, or at least that is their aim. The 'bag lady' with her shopping trolley full of all the answers to the world’s questions curates her own collection of bags just as the art historian curates their collections of fine art.
Upstairs in the annexe there is a beautiful collection of beetles. It is now the 'type' reference for a number of species and is being researched by various world experts.9 Some specimens are as small as the head of a pin, quite literally. The way that differences between types / species? are identified is by studying the beetles genitalia. Splitting the atom or splitting hairs? All are kept in specimen trays in a bank of wooden drawers
Nearby there is a butterfly collection, also in racks of wooden drawers. This collection is important because it contains successful attempts at cross breeding (the new hybrids were fertile and had offspring). Again, it seems as though the knowledge is what is most important. But if this is so then why keep the specimens? Somehow, within a collection, the knowledge and the specimen become conflated and the objects become totemic.10 Is there another sort of value in addition to the scientific knowledge? - each artefact is more than an unexhausted seam of knowledge - it is itself - a marvellous object in its own right. Might not drawing present this 'veracity of things' and avoid the traps of cartography?11
Further along the room there are model ships, as well as the empty cases for the ones currently on display. A bone frigate made by a Napoleonic prisoner of war. Every tiny plank is nailed down! A noble and fine object, standing out from its neighbours, seemingly adrift and becalmed in foreign surroundings (is this how the prisoner felt too?). What would be revealed if artefacts were stored in order of quality?
On the wall at the end is an old and rather decrepit diving suit – half perished and irreparable. Selling it to another museum would mean that its history (like its air line) becomes severed from the local context, and so it would become less valued, less emotive as an object. Objects in the collection reside here, in Plymouth, as if they were living things. Removed from their habitat they lose their significance. Or, to consider it another way, when they are removed then the context is reduced too.
The collections, the people, the displays, the researchers, and the buildings all form a single organism. Drawing can bring life to things. Could one make a drawing that reveals this? A work that both brings life to the things drawn (the artefacts, the artist who draws them and those who are drawn to it) and is also a kind of index, or a meta-artefact? A map of itself, simultaneously aware of the impossibility of its task, and also looking to overcome the limitations of seeing the world in this way. A work that aims to reveal and transcend the myth of cartography?
1 Courtesy of Helen Fothergill, the Museum's 'Manager of Collections'.
2 See for example:- Seamon, D. (ed) Dwelling Place and Environment, Los Angeles: California University Press, 1989. - Robertson, S. (ed) 1982. Rosegarden and Labyrinth, A Study in Art Education, East Sussex: The Gryphon Press. - Bachelard. G. 1969. Poetics of space. Beacon Press. Boston. - Barthes, R. (ed) 1972. Mythologies, London: Jonathan Cape Ltd,
3 This seems to connect with the notion that knowledge and responsibility are ethically linked - as in Umberto eco’s novel 'The name of the rose'.
4 See Michel Foucault. 1966 (trans 1970) 'The Order of Things. An archaeology of the human sciences'. Pantheon books. In which Foucault writes - "This book [the order of things] first arose out of a passage in Borges, [which] quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopaedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies'.
5 See Daniel Miller. 2008. 'The comfort of things'. Polity books. Cambridge.
6 See Mark Treib. 2008. Drawing / Thinking. Routledge. London and New York. Also, Matthew B Crawford. 2009 Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. The penguin Press.
7 See Juhani Pallasmaa. 2009. The thinking hand. Existential and embodied wisdom in architecture. John Wiley and Sons.
8 Anthony Vidler. (ed) The Architectural Uncanny, London: The MIT Press, 1992
9 As far as I can understand it, the idea of the 'type reference' is that it is the example which provides the 'source' of reference for all subsequent identifications of that type. In short it is the 'definitive version'.
10 Steele, J. (ed) 1994. Museum Builders, London: Academy Editions.
11 See David Abram. 1997. 'The Spell of the Sensuous'. Random House. New York. and Susan Sontag's call in 'Against Interpretation'. (1966) that 'What is needed now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more ... In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.'