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What motivates us to collect? From high-end art to Panini sticker albums our capacity to gather and accumulate appears endless. As museums we talk easily of our collections however, the act of collecting is often more complex and nuanced.
Inspired by stories contained within ‘Treasured Possessions’ at The Fitzwilliam Museum, members of the University of Cambridge Museums team decided to explore this subject in greater detail. Last Friday we took advantage of the Barbican Centre’s latest exhibition ‘Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector’ and combined this with a visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum – the former home of an obsessive collector. The day was about exploring collections from different perspectives, particularly about the driving force behind why people collect.
Magnificent Obsessions is the first major exhibition in the UK to present the personal collections of post-war and contemporary artists. Their collections range from mass-produced memorabilia to unique curiosities and natural history specimens. The exhibition presents a selection of objects from the collections of the artists alongside at least one key example of their work to provide insight into their inspirations, influences, motives, and obsessions.
Some of the collections were ordered and methodical, such as that of Edmund de Waal who started collecting as a child. Others, notably that of Hanne Darboven, were seemingly scattered and chaotic. The influence of individual collections on the artist resulting work was sometimes apparent and on occasions not so. The bold colours in Howard Hodgkin’s collection of Indian paintings are echoed in his bright and colourful work, even though their intricate figurative detail is in contrast to his abstract style. Conversely, at first glance, Pae White’s collection of 1960s scarves and tea towels is not something you would associate with her large-scale sculptures and installations – however her work explores ephemera and the everyday, often encouraging the viewer to take a closer look.
As they consist of individuals’ interests, the collections cross disciplinary boundaries. The collection of Hiroshi Sugimoto, although a photographer firmly established in the discipline of art, showed his deep interest in the history of medical science with instruments, prosthetics, and anatomical prints. Moving seamlessly between art and science enables you to view the objects without your usual expectations or assumptions; this is also a real benefit and privilege of working with the University of Cambridge Museums, as we are able to cross boundaries as we visit one museum to the next.
The visitor experience was liberating. Each artist’s collection has been installed in separate spaces within the gallery, and with no directed route around the space, we were able to explore and discover the exhibition as we liked. In contrast to many museums, the word ‘curation’ was not alluded to at all as part of this exhibition. We were allowed to enjoy the collections in their own right, to investigate, interpret and draw our own connections.
Thinking of these collections in the context of the University of Cambridge Museums, a major distinction between them was apparent early on. These collections were driven by individual and personal motivations, and not with the intention of creating a collection to transfer knowledge to an audience, as with some museums. However, as the founding of many of the University museums’ collections were the result of individual motivations and personal obsessions, it reminded us of the importance of telling the stories behind our collections.
It was an exhibition that left us asking questions.
When does a collection become a work of art in its own right? (Many of these collections are now in the possession of museums or galleries. Indeed, following the death of artist Martin Wong, his contemporary Danh Vo found that the only way he could get Wong’s personal collection accepted by a museum, was to present it as an artistic installation).
What exactly is a collection? – An accumulation? An ordered, conscious obsession?
From 20th century obsessions to a Georgian one, our exploration of collections took us on to Sir John Soanes’ Museum. Following a fun and inspiring exhibition in a contemporary space we were expecting a more traditional experience, we couldn’t have been more wrong! Three grand terrace houses belonging to the architect Sir John Soane reveal themselves to be a treasure trove: packed full of the owner’s collection of architectural goodies and much more besides. From tiny classical architectural fragments to an enormous sarcophagus belonging to Seti I. This was a truly immersive experience, and one that felt very special. The modestly sized paintings room concealed a number of masterpieces tucked behind ingeniously designed shutters. We were lucky enough to time our visit with the airing of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Being able to get up close and personal with such an iconic set of paintings was incredible and was further enhanced by the Gallery Attendant who guided us though Hogarth’s clever allusions.
From start to finish, the staff at the museum were absolutely part of the wonderful experience. Knowledgeable, friendly, playful and helpful they were as much a part of the visit as the incredible collection and building.
Drawing connections between our two discoveries of the day, both provided us with incredibly intimate encounters with material culture. Whether we were nose-to-nose with Damien Hurst’s stuffed lion or a bronze bust of Pluto, it felt as if we were fully immersed in someone’s obsession, interacting with the collector as well the collection.
When we are faced with the University of Cambridge Museum collections that we work with every day, it can be easy to forget the impact of these. Allowing our visitors to get up close and engage with these amazing artefacts and specimens can have an enormous impact. This was an inspiring reminder that every collection has multiple stories to tell, and our visitors multiple ways to interpret them.
University of Cambridge Museums Team