Destruction and preservation in museums

Myna Trustram writes…

To further pick up on David’s post, ‘Honesty and illusion in museums’: I think that one of the things we do to shelter ourselves from the reality of death is to run museums.

You might say then that the display of decaying animals in the Exploratorium in San Francisco is a defiance of this. Or that the museum is a dogged defiance of destruction which plays a far greater role in natural and human life on our planet than preservation.

The Journal of Material Culture in 2003 (Vol 8 (3)) was a special issue, about ephemerality. Using anthropological examples from around the world it shifts the focus from objects as fixed cultural property to considering them as objects and agents of transformation. More relevant to this blog perhaps than the anthropological examples from the 2003 volume is Caitlin DeSilvey’s article ‘Observed Decay: Telling stories with mutable things’ also in the Journal of Material Culture (2006, 11). (Thanks to Hannah Chalk for pointing me towards this.)

DeSilvey spent a few years poking around in the domestic and agricultural rubble of a derelict homestead in Montana. She tracks the cultural and natural residues of the human and non-human inhabitants. She suggests that degradation of an artefact adds another level of meaning to it which museums’ conservation procedures can eradicate: ‘…decay reveals itself not (only) as erasure but as a process that can be generative of a different kind of knowledge’ (p.323).

Finally, Sam Taylor-Wood’s video Still Life (2001) shows a bowl of fruit gradually decaying with a plastic biro staying exactly as it is. You can see it on You Tube.

In terms of museum practice it seems unlikely that many museums are going to start showing decaying objects. But what they do have is a lot of worn and broken objects which tend to be hidden in stores.

The Mary Greg Collection at Manchester Art Gallery is a collection of domestic artefacts some of which show signs of use, for example, a worn down wooden spoon. Participants in a programme of research and interpretation of the collection were drawn towards the objects which have clear evidence of use. They were dismayed when conservators replaced the head on a zebra from a set of Noah’s Ark animals ‘at once removing all trace of the narrative we originally cherished’. See the Mary Mary Quite Contrary Blog.

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Unrealised Proposal for Cadavre Piece, 1970

Myna Trustram writes…

David’s post about the display of dead bodies – whether animal or human – put me immediately in mind of a possible future exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery where a dead human body will be displayed.

Those of you who saw the 11 Rooms exhibition in July this year at Manchester Art Gallery (part of Manchester International Festival) will know that the Gallery hopes to present a work by John Baldessari called ‘Unrealised Proposal for Cadavre Piece, 1970’.

The Gallery intented to present this work as part of the 11 Rooms exhibition but; it was not possible to secure consent to display a corpse within the exhibition planning timeframe. So the Gallery presented the documentation of this process to demonstrate the effort that had been made to realise the concept in a sensitive and respectful way. The Gallery also stated its commitment to continue dialogue with the artist and to realise the work in the future.

Baldessari’s proposal is to present a corpse in the Gallery. The work will be presented in a way that recalls Andrea Mantegna’s painting The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1500, in the Brera Gallery, Milan, which is a very realistic representation of Christ. It also refers to a work that the French artist Marcel Duchamp constructed over 20 years; it is called Etant Donnés – and is a large wooden door with two peepholes: looking through the peepholes you see a naked body lying in a landscape.

In Baldessari’s work the body is seen through a viewing hole from the same perspective as the Mantegna and Duchamp works, from the feet upwards.

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Honesty and illusion in museums

Twitter is brilliant for finding out about really interesting stuff you may otherwise have missed. In the last couple of weeks, to really interesting examples of museum NS displays have been brought to my attention.

The first, from Elee Kirk (@eleekirk) via @RachelCockett

The Opposite of Taxidermy

So in this display in the Exploratorium in California they have decided to take the most realistic view of the decay process possible. Namely, they’ve shoved some dead animals in a tank and left them to rot. This is brilliant.

I’m a great believer that there is nothing wrong with being honest about death. Throughout human history we have sheltered ourselves from the reality of death, and constructed all kinds of myths to try and deny the finality of it. So confronting it, tackling it head-on, is very honest.

I love taxidermy (good and bad), but it’s fake. It’s creating an afterlife, using the illusion of life. The best taxidermists are extraordinarily skilled. But it’s dishonest (not in a bad way). The “Is it real?” question comes about because of that slight-of-hand that taxidermy displays. I wonder if anyone looking at this display would ask the same question?

They might well do, but it would be with a very different tone. It would be in grim certainty of the answer, not as any kind of philosophical pondering.

I worry that no museum in the UK would risk doing this (and I really hope at this point I’m corrected in the comments). There is an inherent conservatism in much of our psyche, and we’d surely shy away from it in the name of protecting children. But in my experience, kids are fascinated when they find dead animals. It’s adults who are really freaked out by death and decay, possibly because they have a greater awareness of their own mortality, and find it an uncomfortable reminder.

I did find an old story that suggested the Science Museum wanted to do this with a human body. I think, as long as all consents were in place and the display was controlled and optional, this is a fascinating thing to do. But I don’t think it ever happened. Maybe they are still pursuing it?

The Honest Label

The second thing I wanted to share has been so widely circulated via Twitter and email that I really can’t credit it to anyone. It seems to be described as a label from an unknown museum, although the HMNH tag clearly indicates the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

The label reads:

“This object has been temporarily removed as we revise its facial expression, which was deemed zoologically improbable and/or terrifying to small children”

I do so want to believe this is genuine, and may try track down the source to confirm it. I have to say though, I worry it’s actually a conscious installation, rather than a true attempt at honesty in natural history displays. There’s an underlying truth though, in that old taxidermy was often displayed in such a way as to indicate the brutal and savage nature of the living world. this is of course at odds with the perfectly peaceful way most animals conduct themselves 99% of the time. All those snarling wolves, bears, apes, etc are far more likely to look pretty serene should you ever see them in the wild. But there was a storyline to maintain, and so displays had to serve that.


I think both of these images talk about the honesty of museum displays. In no way am I suggesting there is a wilful, negative dishonesty in museum displays. But I think we do engage in illusion. I’m fascinated to hear what people think.


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Living Worlds

Guest blogger James writes…

I am on work experience from school and was asked to do a blog on the new exhibition in the Manchester Museum, Living Worlds, after having a look round for the first time.

I thought the way the information was scripted using personal pronouns was very good and made me feel more engaged with the gallery. I also thought that the way the specimens were grouped was interesting and that they gave me a new perspective on how I saw some of the animals; for instance the wild goat that was wearing a jumper, or the jackal that was standing in a box. Some of the exhibits were presented in unique ways as well which intrigued, and kept me interested.

I think the idea of using the tablet PCs to get information is good as long as you still provide the booklets as an alternative way of getting the information because people don’t want to ask a member of staff for information every time they go to a new cabinet*. Some of the cabinets such as Peace, Life, and Disaster seemed empty and a bit dull whereas some displays like the Variety of Life seemed very full. I also thought that some of the titles seemed a bit abstract and didn’t make much sense, such as the Domination display and Connect.

I thought that some of the backdrops used in the displays were relevant and sometimes helped to explain what the cabinets were about. But the sections didn’t seem to link with each other and some things seemed a bit random like the Old Billy (the skull of a horse that had worked on the canal). I thought the way the new displays contrasted with the old building was good but there was a big empty space in the centre of the room which could be filled with something. The information books could also have been a bit more obvious because I didn’t even realise they were there until I reached the last display.





In conclusion, my overall experience of the gallery was intriguing and informative; I thought the way the exhibits were displayed and grouped was new and unique and the way the information was presented was also different. However, I thought some of the displays seemed a bit empty and didn’t really link with the displays on either side of them.

* NB the programme on the tablets is available for download to smartphones

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Peace, Love, and Understanding

Living Worlds at The Manchester Museum has been open since April, and I wanted to talk briefly about the gallery.

In many ways, Living Worlds embodies what NLOB is all about; the changing contexts in which we can see natural science collections. Except in this case, it’s not just about looking to the past, it’s also about looking at the future. But I want to focus on one specific, personal, experience of the space.

When I first entered the space, just before the public opening, I formed a number of initial opinions. Being fairly traditionalist, I was initially drawn to quite conventional displays like Bodies, and Humans.

The 'Bodies' case

The 'Humans' case

But a more unusual display, like Peace, produced a more negative reaction. I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I certainly didn’t find it appealing.

The 'Peace' case

Then a funny thing happened. As the preview got into full swing, I found myself ‘trapped’ by that case. Not in an unpleasant way, it just so happened I bumped into old friends and colleagues, and stayed there chatting. I think we were there about 45 minutes, and as time passed, I went on a journey with that case. My feelings about it, my relationship with it, changed.

While initially I’d been put off by the lack of ‘real’ museum objects, I started to see how this highlighted the message of the case, the story it told. The longer I was there, the more I thought about that message. I started to see the value of it. I started to consider my own reactions, my own preconceptions. I became ‘okay’ with the display. Then I started to quite like it. By the time I left, I loved it.

So there’s a clear message here to museums. It’s worth thinking about the messages we can convey. Less can be more. Encouraging ‘dwell time’ by cases is not a vice. Taking risks can produce rewards. Oh, and there’s nothing funny about peace, love, or understanding!

Another view of the 'Peace' case

Next week we have another take on the Living Worlds gallery. Work experience student James Lever has written a blog post about his personal opinions of the new gallery. That’ll be up on the 22nd August.



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At the Wellcome…


At the Wellcome Collection in London the other week I was stopped in my tracks by three Japanese wood panels depicting botanical specimens.  The panels are made from the wood and framed in the bark of the trees represented: Chusan palm, Japanese persimmon and Asian pear.  They were on loan from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The display is part of a collaboration between five London museums (Horniman Museum; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Natural History Museum; Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection).  Each museum has chosen an object or group of objects which has never been displayed before.  Each object is displayed in each institution for six weeks and its ‘story’ is written by an expert from each of the institutions.  The stories are printed in a little booklet you can take away.  The point of the exercise, I think, is to show the different stories that are told by different people in different institutions about the same object.  An approach which is close to the heart of New Light on Old Bones.

In fact each story is told from an interdisciplinary perspective which suggests that it is far too simple to suggest that scientists think in one way and artists in another.

What would be fun is to print the stories without their originating institution and see if we can decide their origin simply from analysing the content. I suspect we wouldn’t be able to.  Now there’s a challenge for someone.


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Museums, nature and the five ways to well-being

I’m hoping by this point you are all well aware of the Five Ways to Well-being:

They are:

  1. Connect
  2. Be Active
  3. Take notice
  4. Keep learning
  5. Give

It occurs to me, a museum, working with a conservation body, a local nature reserve, a local neglected green space, can easily meet all five in one activity. So how would that work?

Imagine a project where a group of new volunteers got together to learn about the flora and fauna of the reserve, before doing some work improving the environment there. Does that meet all five?

  1. To start with, you are meeting lots of new people in a social way, so we certainly CONNECT
  2. If you are then out digging, planting, cleaning spaces, walking around the reserve, you will certainly BE ACTIVE
  3. It’s also obvious, if you are thinking about making that environment more suited to wildlife, you must TAKE NOTICE of what is and isn’t working there
  4. Similarly, you are being taught what to plant, what environments are right for what animals, what animals and plants you will be seeing. So you KEEP LEARNING
  5. Finally, you are a volunteer. You are providing your time for free, to benefit your local community. That sounds like GIVING to me.

It’s such a simple and easy link for museums to make. The collections and expertise in the building lend themselves to that social learning side, and by engaging in the wider community you show your relevance. So let’s get on with it!

You should also read up on Green Exercise:


David Craven

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