Sometimes I think that the whole of museum-making can be boiled down to this one question: how best to express the meanings of things? All the fancy accessories of museum-making – the lighting, the graphics, the glass, the colours, the iPads and iPhones, the screens and projections, the audio and the living guides – are all in the service of this one ambition. To leap time, to light up an object, to bring the past alive, to give an object meaning, to take you back in time.
But oh dear god, it isn’t easy.
So this article is about two examples of meaning-making that I came across this week. Each one is startling, touching and unexpected, and each one worked for me and may well work for you as well?
But first, a true confession. When I first got into museum-making I thought the problem of how to express the meaning of an object was – well, it wasn’t rocket science. Find 100 beautiful words, I thought, print them up, put them next to an object – and there you are, job done.
Only of course it’s not as simple as that. Doubts and questions fall into three areas. Firstly if an object has a thousand meanings – and they always do – then whose meanings are we telling and why are we prioritising this set of meanings over that? Secondly, if there are dozens of different ways to express the meaning of an object – and there are – then how do we choose which way to tell it, and why do we prioritise this way over that?
Even more tricky is a third set of questions. There are plenty of people, including lots of curators, who feel that things and words don’t go well together, that however carefully you choose your words, words are clunky whilst objects are subtle. Or, as someone said of the Pitt Rivers’ collections, ‘the richness of things exceeds that of language.’ There have been some bitter, museum-making arguments over the last two decades and a surprising number of them are to do with things and their words.
Which may be why it is that over the last few years a fashion has grown up to get artists, not interpreters, to do the interpretation.
Which brings me to the examples that I have discovered this week, both of which are in the Foundling Museum not far from Russell Square. The museum tells the story of Thomas Coram, an 18th century sea captain, who bought up land round here when all this was on the edge of Georgian London. Here, on what were fields and streams and woods, he built a foundlings’ hospital, which later on grew famous. For a long time the hospital prospered but in time the city grew and swallowed up the fields, the hospital was demolished, and now all that’s left is a charity, a children’s playground, some tall, old trees, a museum and a folk memory of a sea captain and of the foundling children.
How would you tell that story? Here are two ways that artists have come at it. The sound recordist Chris Watson knew that families of songbirds stay close to the same territory into which they are born and that there is therefore a genetic link between the birds who sing here now and the birds who sang here for the 18th century foundlings. And so one morning he recorded the dawn chorus in the local playground. Ask at the museum desk and they will switch it on for you, whereupon a flood of bird song will come spilling down the museum’s 18th century stairs. The sound is stunning but it’s the knowledge that these song birds are the descendants of those who sang to the foundlings, that gives you the magic of time travel and time jumps.
And the second example? Go out of the museum and look to your left and you’ll see a child’s small mitten fixed to the railings in the street. Only it’s not a real mitten; it’s a tiny sculpture by the artist Tracey Emin, in acknowledgement of the tokens that the 18th century mothers left here when they left their babies. I defy you not to reach up and touch it, so’s to feel the magic.
These are two examples of how artists impart stories – indirectly, allusively, touchingly, emotionally – teasing out a concept then building the art around it.
The concept behind the recording of the bird song is so painfully sweet I wish I had thought of it myself.
Both are ways of doing interpretation that avoid the fight between things and their words as well as the clunkiness of imparting direct information.
On the other hand unless you knew that the child’s mitten was there I doubt that you would have found it And if you didn’t know anything about the foundling hospital would it have had the same effect, or would it have been less meaningful?
What do you think? Do you prefer the way that artists tell stories? Or Interpreters?
The image at the top of the page is from an 18th century map, showing the foundling hospital on the right hand side.