When I saw “Behind the Scenes of the Museum” advertised, I recalled a brilliant day at St Fagan’s organised by the Women’s Arts Association long ago before our art funding got cut. I clicked on the link and booked into a free day at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
It was not actually burrowing around in the treasures from the “reserve collection” or “dark gallery”. Instead, we had talks about artists who did that in collaboration with the historical curators. A theme was the use of the technologies of 3-d imaging, printing and laser cutting. About 260 people had registered and we were in the Reardon Smith theatre, clutching our folders of speaker biographies and info, laptops and phones. My phone isn’t smart and its images are suggestive only.
The first speaker, James Putnam, is an internationally known curator and writer. He was one of the innovators of the early 1990s introducing contemporary art into museums, for example, building a sand snake into the Egyptian Collection of the British Museum. Among his many involvements was re-examining historical artefacts or “institutional critique” of artists like Fred Wilson. One of his from a Maryland Museum was an old pram inside which was a klu-klux-klan hood and mobile phone, exploring the implicit racist power of the white baby wheeled around by the black nanny. Others were playful as well as transforming.
This was followed by a conversation between Sheila Macgregor, organiser Axisweb’s director, and the artist Sarah Younan, studying for her PhD, and Andrew Renton who is head of Applied Art at the National Museum. Sarah’s project is to produce 3-d images from chosen objects, send them to selected artists who make new pieces which are materialised as 3-d prints. We were able to see the results among the ceramics collection upstairs, offering new meaning, transformations and negotiations of historical artefacts.
After lunch, the 3-d theme was continued by Jon Monaghan, although I preferred his animations to the 3-d prints. The printed objects, with open source software and a price list for materials, somehow left me thinking that commissioning an artist to create the object might have more quality – but these are early days. The animations, including 3-d imageing of artefacts alongside games themes, were brilliant.
Helen Snell, originally trained as a printmaker, has moved into installation based work, using laser-cutting to create paper interpretations of museum collections in residency with the National Museum of the Royal Navy – an interesting challenge because many of the museum’s pieces are cruel and prejudiced, from the colonial era. Her responses are both beautiful and challenging: she related herself back to Gilray the cartoonist.
In different ways, the artists and curators showed exciting possibilities to use museum collections. The elephant in the room, of course, is the closures of museums and galleries under the UK government spending cuts, which was politely not mentioned.