Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
In March 2015, a partnership between the Australian Print Workshop in Melbourne, and the University of Cambridge Museums enabled three internationally distinguished Australian artists to visit these museums. This project was entitled ‘Antipodes’, evoking the relationships between Britain and Australia, Europe and the Pacific, past and present.
In the eighteenth century, the ‘antipodes’ was a mysterious region on the opposite side of the world, inhabited by strange animals, plants and new people. Voyages, such as Captain Cook’s, encountered in Australia an extraordinary flora and fauna, and the land’s indigenous inhabitants. These early encounters of exploration and colonisation inaugurated collections that can be found in many museums today, connecting the University of Cambridge Museums, whose collections contain specimens, works of art, works of scientific illustration, instruments and other artefacts connected with these histories of exploration and cultural contact.
The current summer exhibition Antipodes: Cut Apart at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) arises from this encounter between artists Brook Andrew, Tom Nicholson and Caroline Rothwell. All three artists are interested in the histories of empire, exploration and science, and had previously exhibited internationally on these themes.
Works such as Caroline Rothwell’s Museum and Exhibit print series and her Large Glass Cabinet installation featuring bivalve molluscs from the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Charles Babbage’s Florentine Spirit-in-Glass Thermometer from the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, and Rothwell’s own sculpture Spirit Level bring the collections of the University of Cambridge Museums together in new ways, enliven the objects and enable new understandings for their publics. The three flags produced by the artists and hung prominently in the first and second floors of MAA intervene in the existing displays. At the heart of empire was the issue of sovereignty, where European nations sought to rule other peoples. One of sovereignty’s central symbols was the flag. Unlike traditional flags, these found in Antipodes: Cut Apart are not neat emblems of national identity. Tom Nicholson’s refers to Governor Arthur’s Proclamation Board from Tasmania, in the MAA collections. Brook Andrew’s evokes the movement of things and identities in colonial encounter and collecting. Whilst Caroline Rothwell reworks a single photograph of an Australian tree from the MAA photographic collection. Featuring lines like those of tree rings, it suggests time and what is involved in looking back through time. The flags provide then an alternative imagining of travel, power, art and cultural encounter.
Of the three artists involved, Brook Andrew had previously visited the MAA and produced a series of prints on linen based on an album of images from Australia in the mid-19th century that were exhibited at the MAA in 2008, and have been loaned to several European exhibitions since. ‘Antipodes’ has fostered existing relationships, generated new ones and will, we hope, through this new body of prints that was gifted to the MAA, continue to develop relationships and partnerships long after Antipodes: Cut Apart has closed. During their research trip in 2015 the three artists, together with Anne Virgo, Director of APW, Senior Printmaker Martin King and staff of the MAA travelled to each of the University of Cambridge Museums, studying, reflecting upon, and making new connections between the rich collections that each of these institutions house. As many of the installation images show collaboration was at the heart of the exhibition.
Antipodes was not only reliant on the curatorial staff of the MAA but staff across the University of Cambridge Museums whose conservators, collections staff, curators and directors gave their time and expertise both during research visits and to aid with the selection of loan objects for the exhibition.
For the artists involved this project has encouraged them to explore new mediums of production and has produced research material for other areas of work. Caroline Rothwell in particular has described how through her participation in the ‘Antipodes’ project she has been:
“allowed me to delve into one of the most extraordinary series of museum collections on the planet! I have handled and viewed objects that have been on my research radar for years. Remarkable objects and curatorial insights have opened a rich research seam impossible to access online or on paper. The ability to range across collections and make links through time, history and place has been a gift that will feed my practice for years. Ideas germinated during this venture are rippling through my current practice as I head towards an exhibition in Melbourne and then in Ecuador later in the year where I will reflect on Darwin’s collections from the Galapagos that I viewed in Cambridge. This research project continues to expand and influence my practice and will do so well into the future. I look forward to working together again at some point.”
Much like the University of Cambridge Museums collaborative Discoveries; Art, Science & Exploration exhibition held in 2014, Antipodes: Cut Apart is about the power of our rich collections to generate wonder as well as new ideas, not just for our visitors but for those with whom we work. The ‘Antipodes’ project looked to draw on the collaborative ethos of the University of Cambridge Museums to reflect on those collections made during the early encounters of the 18th and 19th century and offer fresh perspectives. By doing this, the project has highlighted the benefit of these collections not just as a ‘resource for reflection but as creative technologies that enable people to make new things in the present’ (Thomas 2016), and that can continue to bring new and diverse audiences into our museums.
Antipodes: Cut Apart is in the South Lecture Room, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology until 26 September 2016.
Alison Clark, Research Associate, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Prints can be purchased through the Australian Print Workshop.
This project was made possible through the generous support of APW’s long-standing philanthropic partner The Collie Print Trust.