10 September 2012

Review: The Curious Case of…

20 July – 23 September 2012
Great North Museum: Hancock

By Chantal Knowles
National Museums Scotland 

The Curious Case of…  explicitly draws its inspiration from the cabinets of curiosity popular in the 18th century, exploring how objects can inspire curiosity and a desire to know more. It is part of Journeys of Discovery, a project in the north east of England which used the voyages of Captain Cook (born in the region) as inspiration for the development of exhibitions at the Oriental Museum, Durham; Dornam Museum, Middlesborough and Great North Museum, Newcastle.

The project is part of the government’s Stories of the World strand of the Cultural Olympiad, and sought to interpret World Cultures collections by engaging with young people from the local community. Members who attended this year’s MEG conference will remember a presentation by several of the young volunteers involved in this project. The young curators worked with communities around the world, artists and museum professionals to challenge how objects can be displayed and interpreted.  

The Curious Case of… is book-ended by the work of local contemporary artists. The introduction is an installation by artist Dawn Felicia Knox  intended to ‘spark the same sense of curiosity in the viewers’ as was provoked during visits to the stores.  The exhibition ends with a stylized Victorian sitting room with its own ‘cabinet of curiosities’, creating a comfortable seating space in which to explore the themes of the exhibition through books and artists' work. Amongst my favourites here were James Maskrey’s brilliant jars of imagined delicacies collected during Cook’s first voyage in 1768. A screen at the heart of the cabinet also features images uploaded to flickr by visitors to the exhibition.

Themes touched on by the exhibition are varied and wide-ranging, as are the artefacts on display. Each object was chosen by a young curator during a series of visits to the reserve collections. All of the volunteers chose objects that inspired their curiosity and provoked them to find out more.  The objects are identified by a brief object label (including name, region and possible date and collection) supplemented by a story label. 

Amongst the highlights of interpretation were the lantern slides of Joseph Burtt and the associated slide show booth with audio by two locals originally from Angola and part of the CultureRISE project. The Caribbean fish trap is striking in its size and simplicity, but inspired a story of the revival of this tradition in order to manage fish stocks. A samurai sword from Japan is interpreted through a Manga comic strip, commissioned from artists in Kenya - an unusual yet engaging alternative to a written label. 

The absence of a dedicated ethnographer on staff at the Great North East Museum means that guidance was sought elsewhere, from retired curators, academics and cultural organizations within Newcastle, as well as by contacting source communities elsewhere. Although the level of research differs for each object, this does not seem to translate into an uneven balance in the interpretation. There are artefacts where the absence of information about the object or its poor quality become the story. These are generally less successful, and access to wider expertise would have enhanced these stories and facilitated further research. My only criticism is with regard to this, as there are certain decisions about objects and the use of language that could have been handled with more subtlety, and it may have been preferable in some cases not to have included them at all.

The curators have clearly taken audience engagement seriously, and provided interactives for a variety of age groups. These included shoes and clothing to try on, a series of stamps to collect in a ‘passport’ throughout the exhibition, as well as the ability to record comments on paper that are posted on the wall and online through networked ipads. When I saw these on opening night I speculated on how well they would survive regular use, but when I revisited six weeks later, although there had been some difficulties, the interactives were largely intact. Engagement, dialogue and participation are a key strand throughout the exhibition. You, the visitor, are invited to engage and reflect in much the same way as the young curators did in order to develop the exhibition.

The aim of Stories of the World was to engage young people in the research and interpretation of ethnographic objects in museum collections, and to do this through engaging with artists, musicians, source communities and curators. The project overall needs to be evaluated and its aims and purposes critiqued. In order to do this we need to examine its results, including this exhibition, review the methodologies used, and assess the impact on the young curators who were specifically targeted.

The Curious Case of… is an interesting and entertaining exhibition which provides a different approach to an important collection.  It has clearly been enjoyed by the local community and visitors, with very positive comments online and written in the gallery.  The exhibition closes very soon but, if you get a chance, I would recommend a visit.

1 comment:

  1. Some pretty designs alright. Doing the painting yourselves is more fun but a good place for ideas for more design is this site of wahooart.com, that I use to help with my wall decorations.
    You can browse for a painting like this The tree, by 20th century Czech artist, Frantisek Kupka, for example, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LHUQV , that can be ordered on line and delivered to you.