20 November 2016

A minor theme emerged this week – museums, their architecture, their purpose.

Peter Kohane Art museums in Australia: Past, present and future (part of the AGNSW Collectors & Collections series)

Kohane considered a number of aspects or themes around the architecture of art museums – their impact, what makes them memorable, what adds to our experience of viewing art. The major focus was AGNSW, with other Australian galleries in Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane providing different perspectives. Ideas around the external composition and the ritual of entering the building I found particularly interesting, beyond the more simple idea of spaces for viewing – lighting, sight lines etc. No building was “tops” in every aspect, but there was enough to bring pleasure to the local audience (as well as slight apprehension about forward plans).

Nicholas Thomas The return of curiosity: What museums are good for in the 21st century
Purchased with an eye to portability (weight, dimensions) as well as interest, I’m still in the first chapter of this book. Thomas sees a huge resurgence in museums worldwide in recent decades. Destination architecture, telling a peoples’ / region’s / nation’s stories, a rationale for some museums of past colonial powers hanging on to the treasures they have accumulated…

The last hit a long-standing nerve in me. Keeping artefacts because their history is more complex than original creation in a particular community, or keeping them because it offers a chance for ongoing relationships between current custodians and orginal peoples (a relationship that would end if items were repatriated), or keeping them as a resource for all to spark new insights and technologies…

More to read and think about, but in the meantime this weekend I traveled to Canberra with my mother to visit …

A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum, currently on exhibition at the National Museum of Australia (www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/history-of-the-world)

Limestone female figure. 4500BC-3200BC 1886,0310.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Limestone female figure.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Some fascinating and beautiful objects. The Karpathos Lady is close to life in scale. The focus on face, breasts and vulva is so keen – one can stand in a reverie, thinking about the people who carved and used the work. What exactly was its significance.

On the other hand the exhibition was exhausting – unlike when visiting an art museum I spent more time reading the labels than looking at the exhibits. They seemed more examples illustrating a story than pure objects of interest and conjecture in themselves. And the stories started to feel political. There was A Purpose. And not just To Educate/Inform. Perhaps because of my recent reading the exhibition felt like a justification of the British Museum and its determination to maintain control of “its” collection. They’re sharing, they’re showing the world our stories.

Astrolabe 14thC 1893,0616.3 © The Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the item that crystallized my discomfort. The information under the image here is from the British Museum website, as is the photo. Information on the exhibition signage is a bit different. An excerpt:
70. Hebrew Astrolabe
Brass, 1345-1355 CE.
Probably Spain
Christians, Jews and Muslims lived alongside each other in medieval Spain, creating a climate of intellectual debate that resulted in unprecedented advances in maths and science. This scientific instrument is called an astrolabe, used for navigation, astronomy, astrology, and for finding the time. Originating in ancient Greece, astrolabes were refined by Islamic and Jewish scholars in medieval Spain. The Spanish and Arabic words inscribed on this astrolabe are written in Hebrew, suggesting it was probably owned by a Jewish scholar.

Helpful, contextual information. A celebration of human ingenuity. A timely reminder in these difficult times of the benefits of working together. A practical example of the benefits of an institution holding treasures and sharing them with the world. An overt political act on many levels.

I took photos, but chose to use the better quality images on the British Museum website under their open-handed terms. I’ve also found their interactive “Museum of the World” (britishmuseum.withgoogle.com/) associated with Google Cultural Institute. A whiff of hypocrisy from me? There’s plenty to go around.

I re-read my account of exhibitions at the National Museum earlier this year, including Encounters from the British Museum (17-Mar-2016). More ambivalence.

There was an “Australian Aboriginal Basket” in the current exhibition (item number 5). Interestingly, based on the exhibition history on the British Museum website entry for this item (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=496810&partId=1&searchText=Oc1939,08.35&page=1), the bag has only been included on the Australian section of this long-term world-wide traveling show. A sop to the locals? An intelligent respect for the particular audience, with an eye for careful conservation? Whatever the case, this bag “possibly used for carrying human remains” (from the exhibition catalogue) will be leaving with the rest of the loot/collection.

National Museum of Australia

National Museum of Australia

National Museum of Australia

We went back the next morning to visit the permanent collection of the National Museum. It is definitely Destination Architecture. It is definitely telling the nation our story Our Story. Again I was reading labels, being told, no space for imagination – everything shown had illustrative purpose.

This account isn’t fair. It was well done. The story is important. Events had combined to nudge towards cynicism. Given the previous day’s viewing of 101 objects (there was a bit of a cheat to include the Australian WLAN prototype test-bed) we were exhausted within half an hour. I couldn’t take any more balanced, professional, modern exposition. After a restorative brunch in their very good cafe (another essential for the modern museum) we went to a very different exhibition which exhilarated, but backtracking first…

Another event was actually early in our time in Canberra, and held at the NMA in conjunction with the 100 Objects exhibition – but was excellent and I didn’t want to sully it by association with my diatribe above.

Alison Betts Trading tales of the Silk Road
This was one of the high points of the weekend. A fast and entertaining overview of the history of the Silk Roads (note plural) and unintended consequences. Not a single path, not a single journey (people and goods passed along shorter sections, in a more complex trading sequence).

We touched on Roman, Parthian, Kushan and Chinese Han empires – business is best under large and strong empires, with safer roads and elites hungry for prestigious and luxurious items. There was a fragment of a letter from a woman to her absent husband – she’d “rather [be] a dog’s or pig’s wife than your’s”. A quick glance at plague, fleas on marmots in mongolia, local population immune, the consequences as items traded to the west. Vikings as traders, as well as raiders and invaders.

Mum brought a photo, Alison in a group at Chilpak or “Tower of Silence”, taken around 16 years ago when she (mum) spent a couple of weeks on a dig in Uzbeckistan led by Alison. One of the slides during the lecture included virtually the same view, which had us nudging each other in appreciation.

Repurpose Drill Hall Gallery (dhg.anu.edu.au/events/re-purpose/)
My planned research on collage has stalled, but not disappeared. This exhibition highlights “works [that] feature a foreign object, a third party, a ready-made pretext or a pre-existing form that generates a fresh outcome. Through incorporation or obliteration, addition or subtraction, the re-purposed template alters its identity and its function.” (from the exhibition website linked above).

The venue was light and bright. Signage was limited but sufficient – brief explanatory overviews, then basic artist name, title, materials, lender, for each piece. Each of the eight artists had multiple works included. Ample space and no crowd (nice for us, but sad as I think the exhibition is well worth time). Room to think. Restorative. Exhilarating. I had a sense of being at home after the information fatigue of NMA. Impossible to focus on 2 or 3 works – I wanted to spend time with them all.

But I’m not going to write about them here today. I’m still thinking and researching. Go to the Drill Hall website. http://dhg.anu.edu.au/ currently has some installation shots of the exhibition. http://dhg.anu.edu.au/events/re-purpose/ has more information including links to artist interviews and biographies – Matt Arbuckle, Peter Atkins, Chris Carmody, Nicole Ellis, Erwin Fabian, Robert Motherwell, Elizabeth Newman and Trish Roan.

National Gallery of Australia
On our final morning, before the drive home, we went to NGA. Some contemplation time in James Turrell’s Skyspace, then less comfortable contemplation in Artists of the Great War (nga.gov.au/Greatwar/Default.cfm). Some charcoal and wash drawings by Will Dyson I found particularly moving, with a sense of the human moment. For some reason mum and I had been talking a lot over the weekend about her parents and the impact on their generation of war – grandpa underage, wounded on the Somme, grandma the only one of her group of friends to marry. The nightmares continuing many decades later.

This week we moved on to the proportions of the body (using an artist’s mannequin), followed by portraits (taking turns in 5 minute poses).
I started in pencil and working relatively small, but was much more comfortable with charcoal on A2 cartridge paper. Lots of fun, not bad results for starters, and as always more practice needed.

A few days late posting, but more is happening so moving right along 🙂

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November 2016

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