Museums and their objects can help us come to terms with death.1
The new technologies allow Man to do things never done before. We can conjure up in this room moving images, life size of a pod of dolphins as though we were among them. We can observe a humming-bird in flight and hold, paused a single beat of its wings. With the press of a button we can command every painting in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, full frame or in close up. We are Prospero. However, such images do not, and never can, give the same experience as being in the presence of an authentic object. It is the authenticity of the object, and its presence that are the keys.2
The emergence of the modern public museum was also tied up with the growth of the State and its gradual displacement of dynastic structures.3
Collecting is the prelude to recollecting, [in tranquility].
Each artefact in a systematic personal/public taxonomy is the index of a covetous moment.
Seizure, barter, unfair trade, serendipity, characterise this transactional moment, though it is driven by an unquenchable desire for the outré.
No haunted house is scarier than a museum.
No museum is spookier than an ethnographic museum, since it contains archaic tribal ghosts.
Passsageways from life into death, and vice versa, are its special focus.
The casual visitor seeks his doppelganger.
Papua, New Guinea.
‘The representations on these gope, kaiamuni, or kwoi boards are said to represent ancestral spirits.’
Dwarf Shaped Whistle
Devon, probably early 20th century.
Fruit Bat Or Flying Fox
Skin skeletal preparation.
Noh Theatre Masks
‘Noh masks are made from Japanese cypress. A single mask is carved and painted for a period which can stretch from 21 days to a lifetime.’
Java Indonesia c1977.
New Ireland and Vananuatu
‘In the north and north western area of New Ireland, the people make distinctive, elaborate masis and figures. These are used in malanggan4 ceremonies, which are held in honour of the dead and are often combined with male initiation rites.’
‘This monkey lives in small troops in the high trees of the forests, and moves about noiselessly, apparently having no voice.’
Kali Dancing On Shiva
‘Kali is the terrifying aspect of the great mother goddess and the consort to Shiva. She is the personification of death.’
South-east coast of Papua New Guinea, 19th century.
Monitor lizard skin membrane.
The HORNIMAN MUSEUM5 typifies what Adorno referred to as “a culturally conservative practice that lacks a critique of political economy even though it speaks of the accumulation of excessive and therefore unusable capital.”6 This is fatally reflected in its Natural History room where vitrines are stuffed full of fading taxidermy, while the mezzanine is lined by tedious, unlit examples of prehistoric geology. Here and there dead spiders or wood lice [unlabelled] lay in the bottom of airless cabinets. The prize centrepiece of this section is a massive and rather neglected looking walrus resting on a floe of expanded polystyrene ‘ice’. Its sheer bulk takes your breath away, but the glass eyes have no story to tell, though it is tempting to see this creature as a symbol of the British Empire, and its failed Imperial domination of the polar regions. As Daniel Sherman & Irit Rogoff point out “The museological context, in other words, exists within a larger signifying process that invokes notions of community.”7
The founding father may well have been extremely rich, but today the impression is of wampum being hard to come by.8 So moth-eaten stuffed animals for instance linger on in an era when replacing them is not a politically correct option. At least the exquisite Victorian conservatory lovingly moved from Horniman’s Croydon home, brings in cash from wedding receptions or fashion shoots. Unfortunately in an era of Museum studies the site discloses and declares its own shortcomings far too openly.
According to Karsten Schubert the two most important curatorial strategies of the post-modern museum are what he terms ‘the ahistorical’ and ‘the monographic’. These dynamic approaches contrast markedly with traditional static display methodologies, where objects are assembled in such a way that particular readings are sorely limited, and the general public is patronised. Referring to this cultural shift he goes on ‘To keep a collection alive was no longer just a matter of adding to it, but became a question of combining objects in forever changing and unexpected permutations in order to explore their myriad meanings.’9
The HORNIMAN has yet to fully awaken both to this new agenda of ‘continuous revision and turnover’10 and to the dialogical requirements of an insatiable 21st century audience.
MICHAEL HAMPTON november 2005
Mark Fisher, ‘Objections to the Object. Are we losing confidence in the idea of the museum?’ Times Literary
Supplement mar 22 2002.
Mark Fisher, op. cit.
Christopher Clark, ‘Mirrors of their times’ T.L.S. nov 16 2002.
Especially carved memorial effigies intended to either decompose or be burnt. For more see Suzanne Küchler’s
‘Malanggan, Art Memory and Sacrifice’.
Originally Surrey House, which began as a free museum in 1890. The new purpose-built museum opened in
1901,and is renowned today for its Ethnographic, Natural History and Musical Instrument collections.
Theodore Adorno, ‘Valéry Proust Museum’ p176.
Daniel J. Sherman & Irit Rogoff, ‘Introduction: Frameworks for Critical Analysis’ p.xii in ‘Museum Culture.
Histories Discourses Spectacles’; editors Sherman & Rogoff.
Horniman, Frederick John (1835-1906), tea merchant. Wealth at death £421,628 13s. Dict.Nat.Biog. 2004.
Karsten Schubert, ‘The Curator’s Egg’ p135.
Schubert, op. cit. p135.