Exhibition: First Time Out, Horniman Museum; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Natural History Museum; Science Museum and Wellcome Collection, until August 21 2011
To what extent do museums frame the meaning of the objects they hold? It might seem like a daft question to anyone who has recently visited say a science museum or a military museum – or any themed museum for that matter.
But to really answer the question you need to see what happens when you take an artefact from one collection, place it in another and ask the experts there to write its story. A new collaboration by five of the capital’s top science and nature collections is doing just that.
Curators from the Horniman Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection have selected previously unseen artefacts to display in each other’s museums.
After six weeks each object will move around to a different institution to be shown within a new context, with a new label, written by the curatorial team at its new venue.
The scheme is an opportunity for curators to have some fun looking at each other’s treasured objects in a fresh light. But as Janet Vitmayer of the Horniman Museum explains, it will also bring some fascinating objects out of storage for the public to see.
“Millions of visitors across our five institutions will have the chance to see how different experts interpret the same object,” says Vitmayer, who confesses to being particularly excited about seeing what light their project partners' alternative interpretations can shed on the Horniman's own object - a mysterious "dance paddle" from Easter Island.
There will, it seems, be plenty of room for alternative interpretation. The dance paddle joins an eclectic roster of museum things.
© Heini Schneebeli
Objects dusted down and revealed in the revolving display include a selection of toys (1929–1970s) arranged in a sandpit selected from the hitherto concealed collection of psychotherapist Margaret Lowenfeld held at the Science Museum.
A selection of exquisite 19th century Japanese painted floral wood panels - or xylarium - comes into the light courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens, and a Cranium and mandible of a giant lemur from Madagascar has emerged from the 70 million specimens, many of them held behind the scenes, at the Natural History Museum.
“The large skull we're putting on display as part of First Time Out belongs to the now-extinct giant lemur Megaladapis edwardsi,” explains the NHM’s Director of Public Engagement, Sharon Ament, who sees First Time Out not only as "a great opportunity to show the public these skulls for the first time”, but also a chance to see how other great institutions would describe their significance.
At the Wellcome Collection, the custodians of Sir Henry Wellcome’s extraordinary collection of more than a million, mainly medically-related things have selected the medicine chest belonging to that great Victorian missionary and explorer who famously got lost in the African jungle, Dr David Livingstone.
Staff there are looking forward to seeing how the case is reinterpreted, as well as relishing getting their hands on the other exhibits.
“It allows us to uncover the medical significance of four other objects originally collected by naturalists, botanists, historians and ethnographers,” says the Collection’s Head of Public Programmes, Ken Arnold, who sums up the project succinctly when he adds: “This, then, is a project which turns five stored objects into twenty five exhibits."
And that, regardless of the new curatorial insights, is a pretty neat trick.
- First Time Out runs until August 21 2011. Each object is on display at each institution for six weeks. Visit the project online to find out where and when to see them.