The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Museum of Everything

As regular readers will know, we're all about the eccentric and curious here at Attic Towers right now. So when I got called down to London last week, I couldn't resist a trip to the weird and wondrous Museum of Everything (Exhibition #3) in Primrose Hill. This is essentially a full-building art installation made up of Sir Peter Blake's personal collections of outsider art, ephemera and found objects. I have to admit that, as a natural history fan, the main draw for me was a selection of Walter Potter's taxidermy dioramas. So I braved the snow and slippery pavements, and went to see for myself.

Sadly, as is generally the case in British art galleries, photography is not allowed (£1000 fine! warn signs in every room), so I will have to paint a picture with words.

The 'Museum' is tucked behind a public library, and from the front looks pretty unassuming. I passed through the very welcoming foyer, proudly sticking my Museum of Everything sticker onto my winter coat as I went. The exhibition takes place in a series of rooms, which follow one from to another in order, although there is nothing to stop visitors from going back into rooms they have already seen should they choose.

It starts off in a corridor with a small display case containing a pair of shoes allegedly owned by the famous nineteenth century dwarf General Tom Thumb. The rest of the corridor is made up of postcards, photographs and circus billings for various circus freaks and performers from times past - giants, human skeletons, siamese twins, bearded ladies and so on. This set the scene for the rest of the exhibition, both with the recurring theme of circuses, and the questions of what is art? and what is acceptable?

I won't describe every room, but dolls, shells, matchboxes, puppets, circus advertising posters and miniature fairground rides all had their place. I was particularly struck by the naive embroideries of Ted Wilcox, an ex-sericeman who learned to stitch while recovering from a war injury. His work includes a selection of pin-up girls with psychedelic backgrounds, and two wonderful and slightly wonky recreations of the scenes of Alice in Wonderland. There was something incredibly human and touching about this outsider art which is very different from the usual art gallery experience.

Finally, I reached the Walter Potter room. For those not in the know, Potter was a Victorian self-taught taxidermist who used the bodies of small animals (particularly kittens, puppies, rabbits, rats and squirrels) to recreate scenes from nursery rhymes and everyday life, which were then displayed in his Museum of Curiousities. Taxidermy is a distinctly weird artform at the best of times (I say that as a lover of natural history museums) and Potter's dioramas help remind us why. One scene depicts toads of all sizes playing games in a playground, like an amphibious Breugel recreation, while in another rats drink and play cards, and in third around ninety birds (somewhat ironically) mourn the death of Cock Robin. As with all taxidermy, the scenes are human constructs - creating images of our own interest from the skins of animals. As with much of Blake's collection, the discomfort we feel when we look at these pieces challenges us to think again about the meanings and values we place on our world.

What also struck me as I wandered through the various rooms was that almost anything can become mysterious and seem valuable when it is part of a collection. Shell-covered plastic owls are tat that many of us will have (rightly) passed over in seaside souvenir shops. But in a room where the walls and everything within them is covered in shells, these objects seem somehow more special. So maybe my final thought was to question museums themselves, and the strange human phenomenon that is collecting. I believe that for many museums, part of their job is to help people understand the world a little better. So maybe the MoE can be seen as a meta-museum, helping us museum folks to understand museums a little better too.

The exhibition ends on the 23rd December, so there isn't much time for intrepid curiousity hunters to see this one. However, this is Exhibition #3, so we can keep our fingers crossed that more exhibitions will tumble forth from their creative brows before too long.

2 comments:

Mike Simpson said...

I remember, as a child in the 1970s, being taken to see the original Museum of Curiosities in Arundel. That stuff should be either twee or disturbing or both, yet it's neither. I think it's sufficiently twee not to be disturbing and sufficiently disturbing not to be twee.

Stephanie said...

I saw this collection when I was a teen in the 90s, and it was definitely one of my most memorable museum experiences. I love the idea that the museum itself has become a curiosity.