systema metropolis


of an Exhibition

by Lynda Kelly

Published on August 30, 2007, Modified on September 03, 2007

  • Description:

    This exhibition forms part of the contemporary art program at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM). Timed to celebrate 300 years since Carl Linnaeus’s birth, it looks at how we make order from chaos through four field trips around London that were undertaken by the artist in collaboration with scientists from the NHM.

    The first section is a ‘classic’ museum display – old-style showcases that detail both the work of Linnaeus (and the actual books, materials etc are really exciting to see) coupled with the objects from amateur collectors and scientists of the same time. The area is beautifully designed – pleasing to the eye while full of interesting objects that you can explore.

    Around the back are the four installations that document each field trip in what at first appears to be the usual way of showing scientists’ labs, but on closer inspection is actually rather unusual and whimsical – a mixture of the old, the new and the downright odd. Each display is accompanied by a really clearly written and informative text panel that documents what was done and what was found. The displays were really cool each in their own way, and seemed to be deliberately obscure, inviting visitors to “read” each in their own ways. The attention to detail was marvellous. My favourite was the final piece from the Thames River field trip at Battersea. The display was amusing, yet disturbing at the same time given the amount of rubbish collected just over a few days, all displayed in classic taxonomic order. The sea horse shown was only the fifth ever collected in the river and will now be accessioned as part of the NHM’s collection.

    Although I enjoyed the exhibition, I did feel the usual sense of frustration on behalf of causal visitors who would need some more help to “read” the exhibition. This left me wondering what visitors will actually take from the exhibition? The accompanying booklet was illuminating, however I didn’t read this until I got back to my hotel and would speculate that many visitors would be in the same position (it was hard to read such small text with the light levels in the exhibition). I felt that the exhibition would have benefitted from both an artist and scientists’ statement at each display to help us understand what was experienced from their personal perspective, in addition to the well-written, but rather dry, accompanying text panel. I was especially interested in how the scientists felt about the process. What were their experiences? How did the project impact on their work and they ways they now think about the conjunction of art and science? Was it interesting for them or an impost on their already stretched time? I would also have liked to see some nod to the contemporary debates surrounding classification systems and the impact folksonomies are having/will have on the classical approaches to taxonomy in museums.

    I understand the artistic process of enabling visitors to make their own meanings, but felt this was a missed opportunity. We know that visitors are really interested in the work behind museums and it would have been good to make that more explicit. I was also left wondering how visitors perceive the beginning of the exhibition and the relationship to the next section. There was no way of encouraging them to explore further, given that you could pretty much see the whole back section of the exhibition at one time – how many visitors would have glanced then walked out? Related to this point, I also felt that the exhibition would have been better placed in a smaller, more intimate space as it seemed to be too spaced out and empty.

    So, overall impressions? Being fortunate enough to go through the exhibition with a staff member I was able to see the effect that the program had within the NHM itself. To me it is the process of these kinds of residencies/programs that are more exciting often than the final product. However, this exhibition was very stimulating and thought-provoking, beautifully displayed in fine detail and with obvious respect (and reverence I suspect) for the scientific process, and the impact of that for museums and for us. It is an ambitious program and, and I think the NHM should be congratulated for taking the risk. I’m really looking forward to reading the evaluation results, as well as the next series of planned contemporary art meets science projects.

    (PS. A note on images – I am unable to upload any images as I need to get some official ones from the NHM, will endeavour to do so soon)

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