Contextualising objects

Detail of a piece by Fleur Wickes. Click on the photo to visit her site.
Detail of a piece by Fleur Wickes. Click on the photo to visit her site.

One of the things I’ve long found interesting is the importance of context in determining our perceptions of what we see. In the context of heritage, the difference between science, art, music and even rubbish, can be determined by the value conferred on it by its context. Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the delightful installation Let it all Come Undone by artist Fleur Wickes, at Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and History, in Palmerston North.

The work contains within it objects that represent Fleur in a deeply personal way – which have a meaning for her at which we, as viewers, can only guess. A book. A jar of pens. The charger from an iPhone. A plastic Godzilla figure held in place by a power cord. Individually, their meaning to us only relates in terms of their relative functionality. Even collectively they would mean very little if, say, they we happened upon them in a second-hand shop. It’s only when translated for us in the context of a dialogue that this assemblage takes on a meaningful form that goes beyond the sum of its parts. In this installation, the collection of objects is interwoven with artworks, mostly text-based or collage, which provide a fragmentary narrative, a further subtle glimpse into the Wickes autobiography. It was interesting to me that the artist and the Museum Director chose to house the installation not in the purpose built art gallery, but along the busy foyer, under the stairs. It is, by design, accessible – communicative.

2013 annual botanic garden exhibition at the University of California Botanic Gardens at Berkely
2013 annual botanic garden exhibition at the University of California Botanic Gardens at Berkely

As museologists we assume that when audiences attend an art gallery, they expect everything they see to be art and open to interpretation. When they visit a science museum, everything they see is science and factually correct. It’s all too easy to forget the creativity involved with science or the analytical skills required by art. Occasionally, we mount a show that is a deliberate cross-over. The annual Plants Illustrated exhibition held by the University of California Botanic Garden at Berkley by the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists is a good example where audiences accept the interplay between artistry and other types of heritage. Public (or at least critical) outrage at Te Papa’s display of Colin McCahon’s 1958 Northland Panels beside a Kelvinator refrigerator manufactured in the same period is an example of when they do not. High art is apparently not meant to be used as the synecdoche for New Zealand’s national identity.

Nathalie Miebach
Nathalie Miebach presents her work at Ted Talks

A particularly effective attempt to deliver across different heritage forms is the suprising body of work by sculptor Nathalie Miebach. She fashions her three-dimensional sculptures out of whicker using as her template data from weather events. These data are also translated into musical scores, which are in essence sonic representations of weather patterns and of the sculpture. Truly integrated heritage.

Clearly we can do a lot more thinking about in our institutions about our approaches and assumptions to contextualising ideas and the objects we choose to represent them.

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