War & Conflict

Within discussions on the Museum’s role in providing a narrative of history, it is intriguing to bring this idea to the context of conflict. I visited both, the Imperial War Museum and National Army Museum to consider how these institutions deal with presenting such a violent and delicate subject matter. When retelling historical events the museum’s purpose seems to be to piece together the remnants of information and objects to complete a story. These two establishments use the tools of curation to complete this task but with very contrasting perspectives in result.

From the onset, looking to the names of these institutions begins to unravel the narrative to be revealed. With the titles ‘Imperial’ and ‘National’ there is an immediate sense of importance and authority over the information they provide. The inclusion of ‘War’ suggests the area of exploration is much broader in comparison with that of the ‘Army’. When the intention is to represent the Nation’s army, is there any other way to do this than patriotically? This was my immediate thought however I was not aware what span of history they would cover inside and it is often seen that the detachment of history allows for the critique of ones own people.

When first exploring the collection what is most obvious in the display in the amount of objects used to craft the narrative of the Army’s journey through history. This gives an impression of a thorough and reliable account however as the individual rooms uncoil themselves within the museum the detachment of the glass case has an effect on the responses we develop. I saw this notably in the display of weapons. The intended narrative was suggested to be in evolution of the tools of war and their design. This is problematic when thinking warily that each of these actual swords had featured within the hand of person in battle and had most probably claimed the life of another. Now, they sit removed from their original meaning as one amongst many, admired for their intricate ‘beauty’.

Contrastingly the IWM presents the ‘A Family in Wartime’ display as an inclusive experience, with interactive elements including models, video and audio devices.  The museum expresses the idea of individuals within this landscape of war as their apparent prevailing narrative tool. By focusing on a single family the curators seem to create a narrative indicative of the hardships of many during wartime. In telling the story, including personal details, of each family member and their associated narratives, of being a wife, child or father, they become vehicles for information about the army, healthcare and food rationing system etc. to be revealed.

By putting a face behind the history, the information becomes personable and therefore heightens the emotion when the struggles are revealed. The display consists of different domestic installation, with noteworthy objects featured and isolated in a more selective manner. The presentation also includes an abundance of photographic portraits to reinforce this family narrative. This is possible due to the technical advances of the age whereas the Army museum makes use of mannequins to illustrate their narrative of warfare scenarios. In comparison to the honest eyes of a young girl, these plastic and dated bodies feel like costumes, taking away from the severity of the subject matter in hand. The efforts to humanize are based in the desire to provoke emotional catharsis or response. Although the Army museum does not seem to achieve this so effectively in the permanent collection, I found this more so in the IED exhibit. Emmanuel addressed the issue of museums becoming like shops, with meaning lost in the presentation of objects. Here when presenting a soldier’s uniform the objects retain their power, with the two shoes placed together next to other kit and personal tokens. Instead of coming across as a ploy to present a ‘best of’ example’, the response is empathetic as we can relate to this simple yet symbolic imagery.

To further consider the emotional aspect of addressing issues of conflict, the IWM’s display of the Holocaust is unavoidably affecting. From the very entrance, that warns that children under a certain age should not enter there is an immediate sense of mood and gravity. The irony here is that curator tries to control who views this chapter of history within the museum due to issues of sensitivity, when the exhibit sees largely how these horrendous acts were inflicted upon children of these very ages. Aspects of the display are extremely upsetting however we constantly see many atrocities broadcasted across the news everyday. By having a power over this physical space they maintain control however this seems to feed on a issue Emmanuel discussed, where often political correctness is not about facing up to history but rather trying to negate it.IMG_8095

The text and the written word that feature alongside the atmospheric visual and audial display provoked the most emotional reaction in myself. Whilst being surrounded by instruments to provide information the dim lighting maintained a feeling of austerity. The introductory text speaks- without cold detachment- of the ‘massacring’ and ‘mass extermination of a whole people’ and immediately sets a tone that is maintained.  The information is possibly so effective in engaging emotional response due to the brutal honesty, with graphic descriptions of violent acts pasted in large text on the walls illuminated in spotlight. As the sequential layout that tries to piece together the fallout of the Nazi regime unfurls, quotes from individuals that were persecuted and from media with their brutal condemning voice pull emotionally on the viewers. What was especially poignant was that although such hatred was repulsive to hear now, this was commonplace during the time. By dehumanising the Jewish people through language and by categorising them using symbols, it was shown how it became easier for the Nazi’s to control their troops to commit such heinous actions upon fellow human beings.

Clothing and letters were also presented carefully within cases. The way the ephemera was displayed within the space felt less like confinement of dated historical objects but rather as the belongings of an individual to be remembered and safeguarded. The concept of masses of similar objects displayed together creates its own narrative, evoking realisations of the scale on which the brutality took place. The emotional impact of this display provoked the query as to why visual aids and objects are so prevalent in the retelling of history. If we didn’t have this material evidence would history collapse and these events be any less important? With the news being a curated narrative of its own this is where the museum’s importance comes into practice. It is not enough just to feel the magnitude in the moment; it is the resonance that is crucial. In a way, these ornamentations of lighting and object display make the subject matter more emotionally charged and  raw. In situ of this space we physically have to face up to the pasts, in contrast to the news and the ease with which we can change channel.

On reflection although war and conflict are sensitive issues I now realize they are possibly the most important to explore. It is only by learning that we can implement change. Often with the gallery or museum, display is about reveling in the beauty and splendour of world. However we cannot only look to history for spectacle, the process of looking back and thinking forward should be akin. In both museums there is an awareness of war and conflict over time, historically but also at present. It is then dissatisfying to me that there should even be a contemporary section, when the purpose of learning history is so that it is not repeated. In as much as you see the evolution of warfare, it is clear the destruction is greater but the accountability is less as weaponry takes not only a single life but masses within a single action.

I wonder why it is that as a society we find it matter of fact to condemn the atrocious actions of the past yet circle around issues that are overwhelmingly present today. As we assess the presentation of conflict passed, it occurs to me to question how today’s stories will be seen and remembered. Will the narrative be the same which we are shown today or will it have completely changed, where ideologies accepted now are possibly universally condemned. Will the museums of the future give either a more evaluative reflection of our faults or a  skewed reality for the sake of a desired narrative? It is said infamously that ‘History is written by the victor’. It is then the question as to who does the act of retelling. Are curators influenced by political message or can they explore these issues more critically? If we really were to try, I wonder whether curation could reshape and challenge an accepted idea or narrative.

Bibliography

National Army Museum: London

Imperial War Museum: London

A Changing World. [Online image] Available at: <http://www.nam.ac.uk/exhibitions/permanent-galleries/changing-world-1784-1904&gt; [Accessed 3 Nov 13]

National Army Museum. [Online image] Available at: <http://www.coolplaces.co.uk/places/uk/england/london/chelsea/2908-national-army-museum&gt; [Accessed 3 Nov 13}

The Pathology of Collecting

‘My Favourite Things’

The museum sets out a democratic society and we have discussed in depth the effect of this curation on meaning. This problem leads us to the realisation that it is the personal collection therefore that is more truthful about culture. When the individual decides the value, they are able to set up their owns narrative, featuring objects not ‘meant’ for a museum. Richard Wentworth’s work Questions of Taste 1997, explores this very concept and the subjectivity of value attributed to collected objects. Here the debris of capitalist culture found outside the British Museum is seen side by side with the debris of history. Wentworth questions what it is that makes the artefacts of the past worthy of being suitable museum pieces, and not disposable.

Richard Wentworth, Questions of Taste 1997

Richard Wentworth, Questions of Taste 1997

Both objects here are containers for liquid and we can contextualise the plastic bottle as a drinking implement. In contrast the ceramic jug has ceased to exist with this purpose and is transformed into a mere object through what Baudrillard defines the ‘process of passionate abstraction we call possession.’ ( Baudrillard, 1994, p.8)

Within pop culture the subject of collecting is overwhelmingly topical and popular. When I went to look for video examples of personal collecting I was bombarded by a mass of sources. It is relevant to question why it is so popular and broadcasted, whether this is due to collecting being a norm or rather a new form of entertainment through the act of passing judgement at the expense of others. I found two, very different, examples to be compelling narratives of collector’s habits and mind sets.

What resonated with me most in these two videos was that within both collections, and indeed many of the videos, we see grown adults collecting object with more childish connotations. It is interesting to see how with the habit there is a regression to childlike comforts and its purer joys. Texts that explore the pathology of collecting show that it is an action intrinsically linked with psychological issues. It provokes the query as to how this re-emerged interest and overcompensation looks to deal with possible traumas. It is possible this theme is linked with the concept that, ‘the activity of collecting may be seen as a powerful mechanism of compensation during critical phases in a person’s sexual development’  (Baudrillard, 1994, p.9) Collecting is widely seen in children and often it’s reappearance is considered to be rooted in such issues.

In the christmas example, the act of display is central whereas with the Sci-Fi themed collection the sheer scale resorts in the boxing up and external storage solutions. There is no particular sense of display, Bellomo even comments on not wanting to anger viewers with how the more ‘valuable’ items are stored away. The problem here is one of purpose, the toy like Wentworth’s ceramic jug becomes divested of its function. This is seen further in the desire to find an item in ‘mint’ condition, only to be retained in this state.

With their Christmas inflatable collection Steve and Kristy show the level of their commitment to the collection and display. The monetary and sacrifices of time are clearly seen. The relationship between the collectors and the objects double sided. On one hand the collector gives the objects meaning within the context of a collection and in turn the act of collecting becomes the collectors own life’s purpose. The two are reliant to each other.  By atributing such personal attachment to the objects, the collector’s almost give life to them, which brings the possibility of death. As we see the inflatables worn out with age and Steve physically burying the plastic ‘body’, it is then true: ‘we have to concede that time is indeed objectively irreversible, and that even those objects whose function is to shield us from this fact must in due course be snatched away by time’ (Baudrillard, 1994, p.16)

Collections are not formed with an end in sight and it is significant that these two selected object of collection may never even be inflicted to this. With the object choices, there is an open door to many different divergent objects that are now so  easily accessible through the internet. Baudrillard’s text The System of Collecting, discusses the guilt that surrounds the habit by noting, ‘and without exception…they will maintain about their collection an aura of clandestine, of confinement, secrecy and dissimilation, all of which give rise to the unmistakable impression of a guilt relationship.’ (Baudrillard, 1994, p.9) . However as social media progresses we see a rise the social acceptance. The text having been published in 1994, we see a major shift in this aspect of research, with the internet creating forums for people to connect through their compulsions. This is seen in  both videos where Mark talks of his ‘fans’ and the mass of travellers that journey to observe the inflatables collection. The inflatable collectors self profess the obsession and present it with a tone of light hearted self-mocking. Talking about these compulsions publicly derived from the desire  to normalise them.

When collecting has evolved to be social, and Sci-fi memorabilia being a massive consumer market, for which there are specific stores, communities and aesthetics that it maintains. I wonder whether the action is an introverted or extroverted activity? The origination of the collection comes a personal desire and will be played privately or publicly respectively of how it is received. This is grounded in the notion that, ‘ although the collection may speak to other people, it is always first and foremost a discourse directed toward oneself’. (Baudrillard, 1994, p.22) With this reflection I seem to have come full circle and question again why is collections of the scientific or historical ‘better’ education than that of the inflatables or Sci-fi pieces. The differences is one is accepted as a universal narrative of being valuable and the other deemed distasteful and even unhealthy.

Bibliography

Video

FlophouseFilms (2009). COLLECTABLE SPECTACLE “Mark Bellomo” 2 0f 18 [Internet]. Available from: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWdO6Bu3SUs&gt; [Accessed 1 Nov 2013]

spaulcottonplant (2012). TLC My Crazy Obsession- Christmas in Cotton Plant [Internet]. Available from: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWxLPFZEZBo&gt; [Accessed 1 Nov 13]

Books

Baudrillard, J. (1994) The System of Collecting. In: Elsner, J & Cardinal, R. The Cultures of Collecting. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Images

Hiller, S. (1969-2011) Homage to Joseph Beuys, series of felt-lined cabinets containing antique bottles of holy water. [online image]. Available at: <http://nihilsentimentalgia.com/2013/07/28/%D9%A0-susan-hiller-the-transformative-potential-of-investigation-%D9%A0/&gt; [Accessed 31 Oct 13].

Wentworth, R. (1997) ‘Found modern Panda cherryade bottle with ancient Egyptian Bes Flask’ from Questions of Taste installation. [online image]. Available at: <www.jamesputnam.org.uk> [Accessed 1 Nov 13].

 

Mining the Museum

From Emmanuel’s lecture exploring the concept of the gallery as a space of control, the task is now to think critically about how curation affects the history we are given. Something is unsettling to me when I truly consider why it is so uncomfortable to question this institution that promises to give insight into what is unknown. Why have I never considered what it is that gives four stone walls and grand museum titles the power of the information to be taken as fact? In thinking about how museums and exhibitions are curated, I now see how anything that is ever edited is done so with the intention of an individual or set of individuals to create a desired narrative, so why not in this context also. On reflection too many times I have been to a museum and found out something truly fascinating that I then go on to tell someone else. In the question ‘did you know…?’ the premiss is that we believe what we have been told is entirely trustworthy without questioning.

With this in mind I visited the Tate Britain’s  BP sponsored ‘Walk through British Art’ display. Being able to reflect on the lecture discussion, the power of the museum was immediately apparent when I explored the collection. With museums, and this one in particular, designed architecturally to look like temples and churches of the ancient world, the associated sanctified demeanour which we adopt evidences the authority we give to the institution.  By adjusting what we see and how we behave, how we react is then not completely unadulterated.

‘Museums shelter not so much objects as meanings, and their work is that of articulating, linking and arranging them in a network of significance. ‘ – Thomas Keenan, No Ends in Sight

(http://www.manss.com/en/Project/Tate-Britain-Signage)

Tat Britain. [Online image] Available at: <http://www.manss.com/en/Project/Tate-Britain-Signage&gt; [Accessed 20 Oct 13]

The display is ordered chronologically and begins with a group of historical paintings. In order to critically evaluate what narrative is being conveyed I looked to the images shown as well as the text that accompanies them. The labels are positioned not directly underneath the work but much closer to the floor. In a way this is an immediate positive step as it allows the viewer to see the work as they chose without a preconceived idea of how they should react. Despite this there is also a sense of anonymity that is not so reassuring. At a glance we have no idea who these people are or why they should be featured.  Within the labels the information given is also sparse, with more detail on the acquisition of the work rather than the subject or even the intention of the artist. The title ‘Portrait of a woman in Red’ struck me as I questioned who the curators intended to present as important.  This is particularly problematic as this exhibition sets out to explore ‘British’ Art and here the curators directly reveal in contradiction that many sitters favour foreign painter for their level of skill. With the subject often anonymous the apparent importance is with the named artist, who in many cases was European. Although many of subjects are unnamed they still convey a sense of power and prestige, this is controlled by the strikingly similar compositions of the works. They all seem to feature a very direct gaze and tilt of the shoulders, which create the most flattering view possible. The pose then feels contrived, ornamented with deliberate imagery to convey the sitters own intended narrative.  Now, looking to the lack of information I began to consider that it does not leave the floor open for thought but rather the curation is more controlled. With less text to question, we accept the visual narrative we are given, of these men and women being highly regarded figures despite being nameless.

With the grouping organised by date, it became relevant to consider what this was trying to say of the era. Are these the ‘best’ examples of people of the age and what does the term ‘best’ even mean? Is it the defined in most accurate or most pleasing illustration? This notion brings me back to concept of mapping and what parts and types of people are left off when documenting a certain time or place. The layout also led to some unusual curation choices. The juxtaposition between Wright’s painting of the erupting Vesuvius against an image of a child and his dogs was particularly unusual. In the idea of taxonomy these works wore placed together due to the age’s interest in nature. I really responded to the painting by Wright due to its vivacious energy. The text given expresses the painter’s desire to create a sense of impact and immense power of the natural force unfurling its dangerous wrath. However despite recognising this their decision to present these images together seemed to diminish this intention and trivialise the grave subject matter. The museum here removes something out of its original context and recontextaulises it with its own created narrative that seems undeserving to the work it recognises.

‘Artists look at museums, Museums look at themselves’ Lisa G.Corrin

Museums make us feel safe because they are about continuum. As I reflect, their authority seems to be like that of a textbook, where the printed word has a validity or power as it feels established and part of history itself. It is worrying to question these institutions as possibly by doing so could allow the meaning given to collapse. In both cases what is seen is not to be queried as it teaches us what we should know in order to become better educated or cultured.  From this thought I began to consider the concept that when knowledge is power, then the true power is in the hands of those editing what should be known.

IMG_7815

Hatoum, M. (1985, 1995) Performance Still. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, mounted on aluminium. London: Tate Britain

 Although this work is featured within a later room in the display due to its more contemporary dating, I found something very curious about its curation. The work immediately compelled me through its deliberate choice of display, resting on the floor, detached from the wall. The image represents bare feet almost shackled by the shoes tied with the laces, now dragging behind . To me the image evokes issues of identity and control. This journey of walking on the bare ground is emphasised in this style of display. However intriguingly in front of the work features a line of display tape. When the curation engages us to relate, with our feet on a similar level bringing us closer to a state of empathy, this line that is a prerequisite of distance is problematic. Due to curator concerns of the piece being vulnerable to possible damage it can be understood the distance is for the safety of the work. Nonetheless, whilst the photograph speaks of oppression we see this confinement again ourselves, with our viewing experience also being controlled as if we too are shackled by the institution that has brought us this very work. In a way the museum creates its own unintentional narrative about institutions of control. With those in control, seen in the image by the cold hard industrial boots, with a weight and power over the everyday man, the bare feet being a raw and universal commonality we share.
Bibliography
Duncan, C. (1995) Civilising Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. New York: Routledge
Keenan, T.  No Ends in Sight. In: Borja-Villel, Manuel J. and Hanhardt
Wilson, F. Corrin, L. ed. (1954) Mining the Museum: an installation. New York: Contemporary
Images
Gheeraerts, M. (1620) Portrait of a Woman in Red. Oil paint on oak. London: Tate Britain
Hatoum, M. (1985, 1995) Performance Still. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, mounted on aluminium. London: Tate Britain
Wright, J. (c.1776-80) Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples. Oil paint on canvas. London: Tate Britain

Getting lost

Psychogeography is defined as the exploration of physical space and in turn, its impact on individuals, their actions as well as internal state of being. When I consider the city of London, immediately ideas of consumerism and crowding occur. In rush hour, all people are driven by a sense of purpose; the streets are motorways for the pedestrian, as a through route. Mapping, is then a crucial idea but this only gives us a 2d representation of a space that consist of people, history and stories to be told. With this idea it is as though the city can be seen as text that can be read, analysed & understood. However it is only through reading critically that we can understand what is hidden.

The task we were set was to use the map and make it redundant in it’s usual purpose of controlling ways of moving and seeing. We were to partake in acts of flanerie to become lost within the city. The Flaneur ambles and wanders, becoming part of the crowd in order to learn of its ways and critique it. This rekindled an idea I had seen within The Great Gatsby, where the narrator observes the people and ways of New York City with a voyeuristic perspective. He comments:

‘I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’ (Fitzgerald,1994 )

When I set off on my journey I had no idea what I would find and how I would feel observing crowds with this new awareness. The first task to draw a route with a usual object led me to the Shepherds Bush area. With this distorted route I had to reimagine the map and how to use it within my journey. So many ideas arose but mostly I was engaged by the action of stillness. Often stopping to check my route, I noticed the only other stilled bodies were the few I observed on the desolate benches. The fact that these exist randomly placed within the landscape of the pavement, a highway of movement is fascinating. It’s purpose becomes almost irrelevant when no one ever stops or when they do, others are unsettled by this motionless body. As I realised this I decided to sit and observe the inhabitants of the space quickly passing by. I could tell others were uncomfortable. What was I ‘waiting’ for and how long would I sit there? Children seem to posses this style of the flaneur, to drag behind and look around. When accompanied by an adult, you see them being hurried because that is what we universally accept as the way to move within the city. Walking thoughtfully we found our way diverged into a green park area, where these children had stopped to engage with a moving sculpture. I realised the importance in taking time as this example set, had prompted our small group to stop and relish these experience we had gathered in more playful way. Benjamin notes: ‘
An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. With each step, the walk takes on greater moment” (Benjamin 417).

For the second task, my journey took me to very unexpected areas and I did actually get very lost. I found every time I looked back to my map of Venice in order to navigate the London streets that I wandered, the architecture of the city claimed my sense of direction even more. Having gotten lost on the bus before, the sensation was familiar however, although loosing my way was the plan, I still felt that sense of nervousness. Off the bus I tired further to navigate my way however I also felt myself being shifted by the bustle of crowd, especially as the streets filled with the 5’o’clock rush. Within the crowd I surprisingly found myself thrilled by moving as one with the mass of people, but as others looked forward I looked discreetly towards them. Although that sounds strange, it was revelatory to see how the individual exists within such a large space and the unawareness with which so many people move.

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite” (Baudelaire 9).

After these exercise I found myself surprisingly close to my sister’s home in North London. When I turned up she asked why I had taken such a long route when I knew I could have made the same journey in a fraction of the time. Although this was entirely true I realised how not only is the way we move organized but also with the concept of time, which plays a fundamental role in experiencing the city. This concept disregards individuals and freedom as the journey is reduced to the shortest time spans and arriving and departing in accordance with this structure. If this is the only driving purpose, there is, as I observed, so much we are ignorant to. Our entire experience is no longer individual but lost within the larger homogenized system.

Bibliography 

Books

Benjamin,W. (1999) The Arcades Project. London: Belknap Press.

Fitzgerald, F. (1994) The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin Popular Classics.

Shepherds Bush Map [Online image]. Available at : <http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/s/shepherds_bush/index.shtml&gt; [Accessed 13 Oct 13]