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Art & Science of Curation: Curation and the Meaning of Objects

The Art & Science of Curation is a project which explores ideas around Curation and the role of the curator. Over the coming year, we will be inviting people from both within and outside our museums to share their thoughts on curation.  We want to build a body of writings which articulate and explore the many different ways in which a curator can curate, and each week we’ll be posting a new piece of writing here on our blog.  If you feel you’ve something interesting to say, do please get in touch about contributing. Find out more about the Art & Science of Curation on our website.

joemindenphoto‘How can anyone want such things?’: Curation and the Meaning of Objects at The Polar Museum

Joseph Minden is Development Assistant at The Polar Museum. Most recently, he has been helping to coordinate the Museum’s exhibitions for Curating Cambridge, The Polar Muse, an Arts Council-funded poetry commissioning project in collaboration with eight Cambridge poets and PN Review, and The Thing Is…, which brings together objects from all eight University of Cambridge Museums. 

In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘Crusoe in England’, a weary Robinson Crusoe remembers the remote island on which he spent his years as a castaway. Half in mourning for his abandoned residence but still acutely conscious of the loneliness and frustrations of his isolation, Crusoe runs his mind over the island’s contents, its dwarf volcanoes, hissing turtles and borderline malevolent goats.

At the poem’s close, it’s clear that Crusoe has suffered great losses in being rescued, his beloved companion Friday dead, the intimately known geography of the island ‘un-rediscovered’. He has been reduced to a figure whose effects are of interest merely as heritage curios. That reliable vulture, the museum, comes calling:

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trouser
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?

These lines often come into my head whilst walking round The Polar Museum. It’s full of objects that belonged to real life Robinson Crusoes, or near enough. Explorers who ended up stranded, not alone, but in the most impossibly inhospitable of conditions, in some of the remotest places on earth; men and women whose entire lives and cultures depend on the austere climate of the Arctic. Prompted by this resonance, I set myself the challenge of finding items in our collections that match Crusoe’s forlorn inventory of objects.

Admittedly, we don’t have a flute, but we do have this toy trumpet. On Midwinter’s Day in 1911 (22 June, given the Southern hemisphere’s inverse seasons), the members of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910-13) hung it as a decoration on their ‘Christmas’ tree as they hunkered down in their hut, weathering the months of polar night.

As for knives, we’ve got more than we can count. The most Crusovian I could find was this one (pictured with its fetching sheath), on display in the Museum’s permanent gallery. It belonged to Thomas Bagshawe (19) and Maxime Lester (in his early twenties), who spent 1921-22 living in a defunct, upturned boat on a tiny island off the Antarctic peninsula. Their lives depended on the seals they could kill with it.

The array of boots in the store is mind-boggling, but this is the most shrivelled. I picked it out without knowing a thing about it – I assumed it was one of the many boots trialled for polar use and then discarded. To my astonishment, however, it turned out to belong to none other than Captain Scott himself; it was worn on the Terra Nova expedition. The snows which deformed it were the very snows among which Scott and four companions died on their return from the South Pole.

In the way of trousers, we’ve got no goatskin. These are in fact polar bear skin, with a sealskin waistband, and come from the Inughuit, a Greenlandic Inuit people who are also the world’s most northernmost inhabitants. Judging by the catalogue, it looks as though they may have suffered the same fate as Crusoe’s pair, however. Deep in the records, telling comment is passed on their threadbare appearance: ‘possible moth activity’.

A parasol was the one thing I was sure I wouldn’t find. It can be fiercely bright in the polar regions –  sunlight reflected off snow can cause devastating sunburn – but I figured people dealing with the challenges of surviving in such conditions wouldn’t have much time to hold an umbrella.

It turned out I was only half right – I’d forgotten about whaling. Baleen (pictured below), made from the same stuff as human hair and fingernails, replaces teeth in certain families of whales, who use it to filter water for krill. Until the middle of the nineteenth century (when it was replaced by steel), it was in phenomenally high demand. Why? Because it was used to make the ribs of parasols. It was so sought-after that Southern Right Whales, such as the one from which this example came, were hunted almost to extinction.

Baleen

I like the idea of using Bishop’s poem to, in some sense, ‘curate’ a fraction of The Polar Museum’s wonderfully varied collection – to produce a kind of mini-exhibition. More than that, however, I was interested in Crusoe’s troubling last question, one that arguably undermines the activity of all museums: ‘How can anyone want such things?’

Some lines earlier in the poem help make the implications of the question clearer. Crusoe grumbles:

I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
The knife there on the shelf –
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain on the handle…
Now it won’t look at me at all.
The living soul has dribbled away.
My eyes rest on it and pass on.

This expresses a familiar, but nonetheless powerful, criticism of museums: the idea that things have a kind of authentic meaning when they are in use, a meaning which is suffocated or lost when they become carefully preserved exhibits laid out behind glass. Bishop gives the wonderful impression that Crusoe and his knife had an almost reciprocal relationship on the island. Now, however, like an angry partner, it refuses even to look at him. Crusoe wonders what on earth someone could gain from viewing such a thing in a museum, particularly without his memories to give it meaning. At the same time, I have often stood in a museum and felt, like Crusoe, that my eyes do nothing more than rest on each object and pass listlessly on.

Bishop is crafty in ‘Crusoe in England’, though: she does two things at once and Crusoe’s negativity is only part of the story. True, for him the knife has lost its meaning, its living soul. For the reader, however, the whole effect of the main section of the poem (available here), which recounts Crusoe’s island and his psychological experience on it in evocative detail, is to make just the opposite happen. By the time we, as readers, get to the ‘knife there on the shelf’, it does reek of meaning, infused with the rich account Bishop has given.

My time at The Polar Museum has led me to feel that the art of curation lies in accomplishing something of the same effect. Inevitably, museums cannot bring their visitors to experience the meaning an object had for its first user – the experience of being stranded for decades in a remote place in total solitude, say. But like Bishop’s poetic evocation of Crusoe’s island, the processes of conservation, presentation and interpretation involved in curation can capture and offer up powerful impressions, valuable and vibrant to those of us who have never had the questionable privilege of an experience like Crusoe’s. If not the full stink of meaning, then, at least a pungent whiff.

This can be hard to cook up by way of museums’ conventional channels, particularly those of captions and wall panels. These tools, essential as they are, often privilege dry fact over beguiling story, implying one perspective on an object where many exist. Often, they tell audiences only what kind of object something is, seemingly in denial of the fact that each object, no matter how mass-produced, is unique in its history and in its stories.

A desire to experiment with the ways in which curation can give audiences different kinds of access to the meanings of objects has led to our programme for the University of Cambridge Museums’ Curating Cambridge. The Polar Muse investigates alternative ways of relating text to object and fact to fiction: eight local poets have written new work in response to objects in the permanent gallery, which will be installed on the glass of the display cases from 23 September to 20 December. Given full access to the range of resources available at The Polar Museum and Scott Polar Research Institute, it was wonderful to see that, in many cases, it was the specific story of their chosen object that the poets set about uncovering. The Thing Is…, a temporary exhibition, takes a different approach by pairing an object from each of the seven other University of Cambridge Museums and the Botanic Garden with items from The Polar Museum’s collection. It uses touch screens to transform captioning and offer multiple perspectives from experts and non-experts alike, as well as the opportunity for visitors to contribute thoughts and observations. Both elements of the programme are attempts to expand and vary the means by which we offer audiences an encounter with our collections, and with our objects’ multiple meanings.

This is especially important for us because, just like Crusoe’s possessions, the objects of The Polar Museum’s collection have meanings that could be easily missed or passed over. Looking at a rusty tool or some moth-eaten clothes it could be easy to ask ‘how could anyone want such things?’ But items that seem unremarkable when taken on their own become extraordinary when we learn the places they come from (or to which they’ve been), the stories they carry with them: Terra Nova’s plastic trumpet, Bagshawe and Lester’s knife, Scott’s shoe, the Inughuit trousers and the strip of baleen. The job of curation is to bring these items together and open as many routes as possible to their enchantments.

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