Five museums, five objects from the stores, five interpretations…
Stored collections have recently been in the news, with the Museums Association arguing that museums should draw more on their stored and unseen collections for exhibitions. Kew, together with four partner museums, can claim to be ahead of the game in opening a collective exhibition of objects never exhibited before: First Time Out.
The idea behind the exhibition came from Lisa O’Sullivan of the Science Museum and George Loudon, Queen’s Trustee at Kew. It’s not just about dusting off unseen objects. After being shown for six weeks at its 'parent' museum, each object will set off on a journey around London, spending six weeks at each of the other museums. At each the objects will be reinterpreted by the curators at their temporary home. An aim of the project is thus to show how an object’s meaning varies according to its context.
Three Japanese wood panels from Kew (Image: RBG Kew)
For example, Kew’s object is three Japanese panels (the subject of a previous blog post), which we have interpreted through their importance for the history of botany; in contrast, the Wellcome Collection (which specialises in medical history) has interpreted the panels in the light of the medicinal qualities of the plants, and the Horniman Museum has focused on the tension between art and science. At the same time, all five objects are visually engaging and have interesting stories, so can be enjoyed in their own right. Sometimes visitors might be surprised by what they see: for example, a lemur skull (from the Natural History Museum) on display at Kew, usually thought of as the home of plants.
Lemur skull (Image: Natural History Museum)
First Time Out has been co-ordinated by the Wellcome Collection. Although always enjoyable, at times it has been a challenge, as even simple one-museum-to-one-museum loans can get bogged down in practicalities and paperwork. Although the number of objects is just five, the concept of the exhibition requires that 25 labels be produced (five for each partner), and that a complex timetable of object movements be worked out. It proved remarkably straightforward for all five museums to agree a single loan contract, and for conservators to work out ways of safely displaying objects in very varied showcases. A useful tool here has been Art Sorb, a silica material that absorbs and desorbs moisture so as to keep relative humidity stable inside display cases. If relative humidity changes too much, too quickly, it can make organic materials such as wood split and buckle.
The first object to be shown at Kew, the Japanese panels, has been on show at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery since 20 January, and has already attracted a surprising number of visitors who have made a special journey to see it. I was looking at the panels this morning with an artist who pointed out the amazing subtlety and beauty of their painting. I hope the project will interest both the general public and my museum colleagues, but am also finding it has made me look again at some of our stored collections.
People have been asking whether all five objects will be shown together at the end of the project. Sadly it’s not been possible to find the right exhibition space for this, so the press view was the only time this happened. However, there has been so much interest and enthusiasm generated by First Time Out, that it’s highly likely the project will be repeated, perhaps on a larger-scale and with a mass exhibit at the end.
The five objects and curators together for the press view
First Time Out can be enjoyed at any of the five partner museums until 20 August 2011. To see which object is where on any given date, please visit the individual museum web sites (see Related links). For those unable to visit London, the objects and their varying interpretations can also be viewed on the museum websites.
- Mark -
About Mark Nesbitt
Mark Nesbitt is curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew. After studying agricultural botany at Reading University, Mark moved onto the archaeology of plants via a doctorate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. After 15 years of research in the Near East, he joined Kew in 1999 as a specialist in useful plants both past and present.
At the core of Mark's work is caring for the Collection: adding new specimens (about 800 a year), monitoring environmental conditions, lending to exhibitions, upgrading the Collection database and rehousing specimens. Mark hosts around 500 visitors each year, from many different disciplines, organises conservation, teaching and research projects with collaborators, and carries out research into the history of plant fibres, medicine and colonial botany. A team of 5-6 volunteers, placement students and interns play a vital role in keeping everything going.
Mark's aims are both to ensure the Collection is cared for to modern museum standards, and to help the fascinating stories told by its 85,000 artefacts reach the widest possible audience.
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