Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Outta Time

Works produced by artists as part of the South West Heritage Trust, ‘Muse: Makers in Museums’ is now on show as a group exhibition at The Museum of Somerset features work by Emma Molony, Jess Davis, Jacky Oliver, Sean Harris, Dorcas Casey, Catlin Heffernan, Taja and Andrea Oke who each previously exhibited their work in the museum they worked with for Devon Arts Week or Somerset Art Weeks. The museums, Axminster Museum, Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum, Museum of Dartmoor Life [Okehampton] in Devon; and Axbridge and District Museum, Bruton Museum, Chard and District Museum and Wells and Mendip Museum in Somerset. 

Sean Harris at Wells and Mendip Museum
Prior to hearing and seeing about ‘Muse’ I had little awareness of any of these smaller museums yet alone what any of them may contain; For example, how many people know that the Bruton Museum holds a desk used by the American writer, John Steinbeck? Or that he lived near Bruton in 1959? I speculate that I may not be alone in thinking this. From a PR point of view this exhibition has certainly been a success in highlighting the benefits that the arts can bring at raising awareness and offering new ways of informing the general public to engage with their collections and the stories they have to offer. From Maritime, Bronze Age and Archaeological history to the history of tin mining, quarrying and farming on Dartmoor and carpets in Axminster! There is a rich and slightly daunting amount of material that each of the artists working on this project had at their disposal. I recall my own experiences working with a curator at the Somerset Heritage Centre sourcing old farming agricultural tools to draw from, the enthusiasm and knowledge of the items within the collection was truly inspiring. It also made me realise the challenge faced by each of the artists on this project to somehow take their experiences of these collections, artefacts, stories and produce something from them.

Jess Davis at The Museum of Dartmoor Life
The resulting work made is pleasingly well-crafted and reflects the variety of mediums from its makers. The relationships with each of the museums the artists worked with is demonstrated in the process by which each of them has had to select and edit artefacts, documents, contexts, processes, stories and/or ideas that are relevant to their respective practices. Emma Molony was well selected as an artist who is a printmaker and has made her own wallpaper to be situated working with Axminster Heritage Centre, who are well known for their carpets. The resulting monoprints takes inspiration from patterns of their textiles. Sean Harris uses his practice as an animator and film maker to produce flip-book boxes of bones at the Wells and Mendip Museum. Viewers are given a torch as they propel the handle operating the flip-books housed inside dark wooden boxes evoking the caves from Wookey Hole in which Hyena bones were discovered; the processes of excavation and illumination used as a metaphor for the element of discovery in archaeology. The use of low-technology in response to these artefacts is also an interesting idea as it brings an element of two sets of histories, that of the evolution of animation and the history of the bones it depicts.  The use of technology is present again in Andrea Oke’s intricate and exquisitely hand-made papercut outs that also feature a QR code for viewers to interact with and access an audio recording of text taken from ancient documents at Axbridge and District Museum. The audio is very engaging but its place as a QR code visually within the interior-design pleasing surrounding papercut image feels a little bit superfluous.

Taja at Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum
Jess Davis’ lino prints of the evolving landscape of Dartmoor depict scenes from its past, some appearing almost appear other-worldly. She also has a series of dry-points depicting objects that respond to the landscape.  Jacky Oliver makes wire and enamel studies of boat models from the Teign Heritage Centre that are an interesting cross-over between the illusionary depth of a blueprint and making those lines out of wire that become both a 3-dimensional and 2-dimensional representation of the original. Elsewhere in the exhibition Dorcas Casey’s ‘life-size’primordial crocodile model with scales made from antique jelly moulds is an imaginative addition to the natural history area of the Somerset Museum, creating its own mythology and talking-point and is both funny and unsettling at the same time.

Context plays an important part on viewing these works and some of them I feel may have lost their understanding in being taken from their original corresponding museum and put in this group show, Taja’s paper clay tableware pieces being one example. Beautifully made and seemingly precariously balanced together in a ball reminiscent of a prop from the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland; Taja’s pieces were originally shown in hanging on original iron hooks in the context of the Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum’s Victorian kitchen. Its meaning and visual presence look a bit lost without the place or artefacts that inspired them in the vast, non-domestic space of the Museum of Somerset. Catlin Heffernan’s textile installation similarly struggles here to compete with its surroundings rather than work with it.

Dorcas Casey at Bruton Museum
My only other reservation of this exhibition is that it is almost too ‘nice’, everything is made to a high standard but it feels all a bit safe, there is nothing particularly edgy, moving or resonate revealed from what the artists have taken inspiration from. The works presented here offer alternative ways at highlighting the existence of the artefacts/stories in these museums rather than engaging or telling us much of anything new or forming a new opinion of. Maybe the intention of the title of the project being ‘makers in museums’ as opposed to ‘artists’ shifts the role to something more production-based? It is worth noting that since this projects inception the artists involved have kept a blog and also ran workshops; their individual journeys and interactions with staff and the public are very interesting, but these are additional things artists offer rather than possibly being the main event, as they could and perhaps deserve to be?

Emma Molony at Axminster Heritage Museum
Unfairly my expectations are probably too high but I think it is important to always push the limits of bravery and ambition in what museums, audiences and arts organisations select or enable artists to do. What this project importantly does achieve is in opening up the dialogue between the arts and museum collections both very accommodating and respectful of the other and offers an example on how they might work together. For artists it is an informed and rich source material and different context to work within and for museums it is the opportunity to engage in new ways in which their collections can be interpreted and accessed. I would just ask that they continue to do so courageously.

‘Muse: Makers in Museums’ can be seen at The Museum of Somerset until 3rd February 2018

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