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What a stimulating session we had at ‘Things’ last Tuesday! Dr Mary Brooks (from Durham University) and Jane Wildgoose (Kingston University and Keeper of the Wildgoose Memorial Library) are old friends, so brought a real depth of discussion and mutual engagement to considering ‘Re-Materialising Things’ for us. You can read the tweets from the session here, and listen to the podcast here (although I’m afraid this week it’s only available to those with a Cambridge log-in, sorry).

Jane Wildgoose is an artist, who has worked with museums and collections in both the USA and UK, thinking about questions of decay and disappearance. She told us about one exhibition she worked on, which dealt with questions of object survival both inside and outside the museum. Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship and the Order of Things was conceived with the Yale Centre for British Art, to accompany the Centre’s exhibition Mrs Delany and her Circle in 2009-2010, which later also showed at the Sir John Soane Museum. Jane used the catalogue of the Duchess of Portland’s museum to reconstruct this lost collection, which was so central to the friendship between Mary Delany and the Duchess. The process of attempting to ‘grasp and make manifest’ the ephemeral works listed in the catalogue, which now no longer survive, from shell-works to small stuffed hummingbirds (apt for tweeting Jane pointed out!), allowed Jane to think about how human relationships worked through these objects. Her centrepiece was a scaled-up re-conception of the famous Portland Vase (now in the British Museum) made with ceramic artist Oriel Harwood and decorated, instead of with classical allegory, with these ephemeral natural creatures. She discussed how emotional some visitors’ reactions to the installation were, and how she came to think about objects as holding some indestructible key to life and relationships.

Mary Brooks is a conservator, who has known and been influenced by Jane’s work for many years. She talked about the exhibition Human Nature that Jane did in Maidstone in 2003 and a show of her own Stop the Rot at York Castle Museum in 1994, both of which used decayed objects from the stores, to talk about broken things, how, and indeed whether, we should fix and freeze them in a museum. Mary drew comparisons between stopping objects in time and our Western obsession with looking youthful, suggesting that this creates a ‘barrier about completeness’ that separates visitors and objects. Mary stressed how museums use ‘magical thinking’ to transport visitors to the past, emphasising the smells, texture and reality of objects experienced in a museum. The marketing so often suggests a stopping or dislocation of time. Hence, a ‘museum is a machine for the destruction of time’, Mary suggested, in which we feel the need to complete broken objects. Questions about how far to do so, or to let decay and use have a value, are exciting for her as a conservator. Ideas about cleanliness ‘Purity and Danger’ (homage to Mary Douglas) work differently in museums, Mary concluded, discussing recent reactions to the Cutty Sark (here’s the link to the video she discussed) to suggest that we feel a sense of betrayal when objects turn out to be largely re-materialised.

What struck me was how much both Jane and Mary were surprised and gratified by visitor responses, at how much decayed objects appeal to people when they show a life and history of use. We went on to discuss whether this works better within the contrasted space of a museum, and Jane gave us the symbolism of objects literally being frozen to enter museums uncontaminated, and how this might be removing the heat of meaning as well as of decay. We ended by coming full circle back to Jonathan Lamb’s idea of things as ‘implacable’ in the first session on ‘Thinking Things’.

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