Collecting Stories

George Nuku and Maori display case. Skin  exhibition, Wellcome Collection.

George Nuku and Maori display case. Skin exhibition, Wellcome Collection.

What makes a collector? What makes a collection? As our First Time Out exhibit changes to display a new object this month, Natalie Coe finds that it all starts with the stories you tell…

When I was 9 years old I proudly received a ‘Collectors’ badge at Brownies, for the 100 strong army of ornaments that adorned my windowsill. But it was not just owning them that earned me that badge; I had to be able to tell the examiner the stories behind the various ugly porcelain clowns and miniature houses. Being 9, those stories weren’t actually that interesting; ranging mainly from ‘this one’s from my Nan’ and ‘I bought this at the seaside’ to ‘my sister broke the leg off’. But the idea of objects having a narrative is essentially the same for any collection, to the extent that it is these stories that make the objects. Living in a material culture, like all people throughout history and across cultures, objects are very important to us; they help realise our social networks as well as convey messages about ourselves. Every one of these objects is the product of a human encounter and as story-telling animals, or ‘homo-narrans’, we have stories about them all.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, ‘archive fever’, or an obsession with collecting and recording things, was especially rife. Henry Wellcome and his contemporaries explored the world bringing back exotic objects to be dissected, analysed, compared and displayed. The resulting ‘cabinets of curiosity’, so popular with the Victorians, offered an opportunity to delight and horrify, particularly when accompanied by mythologized stories of ‘primitive peoples’. Collecting objects was especially important for people coming into contact with unknown worlds where unfamiliar objects were the best way to prove that you’d been somewhere (not unlike the ‘gap year beads’ sported by many of today’s 18 year olds!). This notion of proof and justification was also used by Christian missionaries who would confiscate ritual objects both to prove that they needed to be in such communities in the first place, and to help people forget their ‘ill-founded’, non-Christian beliefs and practices.

In a museum setting, there is always a risk of obscuring these political or human sides of an object’s story and leaving it disengaged from its original context. On the other hand, the new meaning that an object acquires in a museum is no less valid and we should avoid giving undue status to any one moment in history. It is worth remembering, however, that a museum only gives us the latest ‘translation’ of that object. Interpretative panels are too often taken to be a definitive conclusion on an object’s significance. Just think about the hushed, reverent tone that you find within museum walls, as if the displays are sacred. In this way, objects get attention that they may never have had outside of a museum. Things like wicker baskets, which may have originally been treated as disposable items, could become subject to rigorous care, preservation and restoration from teams of specialist conservators. This modern reverence has its place as the latest stage in the objects’ journey but is there any way of conveying multiple meanings in a museum? Is it possible to tell the different sides of the story that make up any one object?

In June 2010, the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Skin’ exhibition opened with a performance by the London Maori club. They had come to bless the exhibition, in particular the section on ‘Ta Moko’ or Maori facial tattoos. As is increasingly done with other ethnographic displays, this performance elucidated the contemporary relevance of such objects. The Ta Moko display was also brought into the present day through George Nuku’s carved display case. George’s work is especially pertinent given his use of contemporary materials like plastic and polystyrene. These carvings of Maori gods are traditionally made from wood but George says that is because his ancestors lived in a world full of trees. To George, carving the gods out of plastic better reflects his world today. Indeed, just copying the ancestors and sticking to traditional wood carving would paradoxically not be in the spirit of the creativity that was employed by them in the first place. And his response to those traditionalists out there? ‘Don’t worry, it will be traditional by the afternoon’!

Embracing what museums call the ‘source community’ has also been part of the curation process at the British Museum, for example Native North American Indians blessed the opening of the ‘Warriors of the Plains’ exhibition in January 2010. The objects were even arranged according to Native North American cosmology, positioned in a clockwise order to emphasise their circular view of nature and in such a way that the objects could ‘talk to each other’ across the room.

So incorporating the source community is one way of adding different voices to objects’ stories. But how do you decide who the source community is? And which members have the right to represent them? Surely, these objects belonged to people who are no longer alive? Such attempts at including the native voice risk further subscribing to the misunderstanding that other cultures, unlike our own, exist as distinct, ahistoric, homogenous groups that can be spoken for by their contemporary successors, instead of as multifaceted ever changing communities with their own politics and conflicts. This is also a problem with object labels which might refer to whole tribes or places which don’t really exist in reality and certainly can’t be represented by any one object.

So how we label or document things very much influences our understanding of them. In fact it is often the label or accession number that designates an object as something worth keeping and displaying in the first place. For example, consider one of the alleged books of human skin on display in ‘Skin’. Its label claims it is “made of Tanned skin of the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence”, but analysis showed that it was probably not made of human skin at all. Nonetheless, the curators evidently decided that its being labelled as such was interesting enough in itself to make it relevant to the exhibition. You could argue that old, potentially misleading labels should be replaced with new ones but old labels are a great way of incorporating prior interpretations into a display. Interpretations lay on top of interpretations, extending the ‘story’ of an object’s existence.

Of course, each museum chooses how it labels its objects and what story it tells in its exhibitions. But would one museum expert really come up with a significantly different description to another when faced with exactly the same object? This is a question highlighted through the current First Time Out project where experts from the Wellcome Collection, the Horniman Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum all give their own accounts of five objects never before seen by the public. While there is some crossover, you can see differences that accord to the interests and specialisms of each museum e.g. the Kew garden references to botany and the Wellcome Collection focus on branded medicine.

Seeing each interpretation side by side gives us a fresh perspective and reminds us that museums don’t all tell the same story but experts can’t bring the personal memories to an object that I could, for example, to my ornaments. With this idea in mind, Keith Wilson devised Things, an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection that bypassed museumspeak altogether by allowing visitors to bring their own objects and accompanying stories into our temporary exhibition space. Interestingly, the handwritten stories displayed with each object were actually pretty hard to read through all the clingfilm that Keith used to contain them. Maybe this parallels what happens when any object gets thrust from obscurity into the public limelight of a museum; it loses its personal meaning and gains a new meaning as an object to be gazed upon. Nonetheless, the personal stories weren’t lost altogether, visitors were still straining to make out the words on the labels behind the clingfilm or would go and look it up on the website afterwards, just as you might research an object that interests you during any other museum visit.

Through this newly assembled collection of ‘Things’, Keith offered people the opportunity to ‘become part of the anthropology of the here and now’. But, while there are lots of ways to incorporate different voices from an objects’ past into its display, doesn’t every museum essentially offer an anthropology of the here and now? Surely, the way a collection is displayed says more about our culture, here and now, than any other time and place it is aspiring to capture. So does that mean museums should show an awareness of that in its displays, or would that just make for self-indulgent, boring and uninformative museums?

The Horniman museum has chosen to acknowledge the here and now explicitly in its African worlds gallery. The objects here have personal commentaries from the local community many of whom are part of the present day African diaspora that the gallery features. The emphasis here is on participatory and, most importantly, ongoing community involvement through events and performances that constantly re-invent and add to the objects’ narratives. This creates a tangible heritage for people and is a kind of continual archiving that goes one step further than getting the source community to bless an exhibition or help with its initial curation. In this way, the gallery is self-consciously about the here and now but still focuses on its content rather than drifting into an all too self-reflexive collection about collecting and the history of Western museology.

Whether explicit or not, it remains that a display of objects can’t help but become part of the anthropology of today; the latest, but not final, chapter in an object’s narrative. Whenever we encounter an object, old or new, we re-imagine, re-interpret and re-invent its meaning and contribute to its never-ending story. Museums are increasingly incorporating these different voices into the display of objects but the loudest and clearest will, by its very nature, always be the here and now.

Natalie Coe is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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