27 June 2012

Jessica Allsop - conference report

Jessica Allsop (Exeter) writes on the panel 'Replacing Objects':

- Polly Atkin – “’A Scuttle for Dorothy Wordsworth’: Re-Writing the Haunted Object”

- Jane Insley – “Discriminating Fossils: Crystal Models Belonging to the Watt Family, c 1800”

- Lucinda Matthew-Jones – “Material Culture and Religion: Samuel and Henrietta Barnett’s Attempts to Recover the Spiritual Lives of the Londoner, 1883-1960”

The three papers presented by the members of this panel considered lost objects, found things, and treasured items made important by association.  An allegorical mosaic, a collection of crystal models, and the things presented within Dove Cottage, were each read as undergoing transformations, from a historical, curatorial, and literary perspective. 

Lucinda Matthew-Jones considered a piece of public art, the allegorical image of Time, Death and Judgement. Her paper contemplated, amongst other things, the role of the art object, the intentions behind its construction and display, and issues of authenticity. Available to the community, the mosaic was understood by its creators to offer an opportunity for the improvement of the local populace, who it was intended to spiritually enliven.  Vision, contemplation, and spiritual well being were linked through the art object. Popularly presumed to have been destroyed, Lucinda Matthew-Jones’s paper illustrated her rediscovery of an object that, in being moved, underwent a series of transformations.  Physically moved from its original location, and consequently extricated from its history and original associations, it was also fundamentally materially altered.  In being damaged and restored by a different artist, content and intention were prioritised over the particular artistry of the object itself, or its authenticity. 

Jane Insley presented a paper on a collection of objects utterly divorced from their original purpose and meanings.  Stored in a receptacle that indicated that the small models may have initially been subject to an ordering or grouping, the intervening years had stripped the objects of both their purpose and their relation to one another.  The prolonged process of documenting, and detective work that ensued indicates, she argued, that objects definitively do not “talk”, and that meaning must be generated through practices of production and perception.  Giving a clear sense of the practical obstacles to researching such outwardly incomprehensible things, Jane Insley traced a series of associations through various disciplines, texts, and languages.  The successful identifications of the crystal models, and even their intended positioning within a recognised sequence, demonstrates the fragility of meaning held in things, and the profound transformations that occur when this is lost, and indeed re-found. 
Polly Atkin outlined an intriguing interlinking of things in actuality and literature.  Inspired by a place, a property, the things within it, and the associations that the site and the museum carry, she outlined “re-writings” that allow the collection to continue developing.  Creative responses transform the objects and the site, preventing it from remaining static.  History and authenticity are contrasted with recent additions – of poetic works inspired by the site and added to its archives, and of physical indicators of modern interactions, such as the modern poet’s name etched into the glass of one of the windows.  In a museum that constantly evolves and refuses to remain static, the construction of value, and the motivations for, and methods of presentation are questioned. 

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