‘New Dimensions: Contemporary Art Inspired by Hidden Collections’ at the Museum of Somerset, Taunton

February 2016

One of the many bonuses of being invited to facilitate a residential of the Women Leaders in Arts and Heritage, South West network, was the opportunity to visit the host venue, the Museum of Somerset in Taunton, with a highly knowledgeable and thoughtful group of arts and heritage colleagues.

Our thought provoking Saturday morning guided tour from the museum’s exhibitions curator, Sam Astill, focused on the ways in which the museum’s redevelopment and programming are working to secure its long term future. Sam explained how different areas of the museum, which is housed in Grade 1 listed Taunton Castle had been redeveloped both to provide enhanced display and interpretation of the collections and to enable income generation.

An example of this was the Great Hall, where careful space planning, robust display cases and the installation of audio visual equipment have all been implemented with corporate event hire in mind.

As part of the tour, we visited the museum’s first temporary exhibition of 2016. Entitled ‘New Dimensions: Contemporary Art Inspired by Hidden Collections’ Museum of Somerset in Taunton this was introduced by Sam as following an established model whereby new work by contemporary is displayed alongside the museum objects that has inspired it. Artist/curator Tim Martin co-ordinated the exhibition, working with both the exhibiting artists and museum curators. Arts Council England and Somerset Art Works provided funding and support.

This is indeed an established model of practice – indeed I well remember curating shows with a similar concept back in the last millennium – but one that is worth discussing here for two reasons: the model, when well implemented, has stood the test of time; and for many of the museums in our region that are early on their journey towards cross-cultural working, it can be a great place to start. Whilst ‘New Dimensions’ is a professionally produced project and clearly represents a significant investment if time and resource, scaled versions of the same idea, working with local artists from the museum’s community, can be developed at low cost by even the smallest volunteer-run museum.

At whatever scale, this type of collaboration can offer significant benefits for visitors, artists and museums. The approach offers fresh perspectives on collections, new ways to share knowledge about them and significant potential in audience development. Artists can find new inspiration for their work and gain profile through their association with the museum.

The exhibition features work by six local artists working in a range of practices – filmmaker/sound artist Laura Aish; sculptor Chris Dunseath; painter/printmaker Jenny Graham; poet Ralph Hoyte; photographer/filmmaker Richard Tomlinson; and textile artist/ printmaker Jacy Wall – all of whom were given the opportunity to explore reserve collections and find out more from curators about material not usually on show.

The design of the exhibition aims to recreate some of the feeling of museum stores, with an installation representing storage racking and interpretation texts and object lists designed to the theme. The exhibition combines the cool feel of a contemporary art show with the interactive elements that museum visitors come to expect.

For me, this mostly worked well. In particular, Richard Tomlinson’s piece features anaglyphic composite photographs of imaginary machines, viewed by the visitor through peep holes in archival storage boxes. Short films and images shared via the museum’s website and social media and a project blog give additional insight into the artists’ experience behind the scenes and their dialogue with the museum and its collections.  In his video portrait, Richard Tomlinson explains how he was intrigued both by the museum’s collection of historic machinery when behind the scenes and by the storage boxes and shelves he found there. So his work explores both the objects and the museum’s process of keeping them.

In a short visit, I perhaps did not have sufficient time to thoroughly get to grips with the interpretive approach. The clipboards were clearly intended to help find out more about each piece, however I took a while to spot them and was rather confused as to whether the colour coded sections of the wall signage was meant to be reflected in the paper on the clipboards.

The museum has used its events programme to diversify the exhibition’s visitor base, from February half term family arts activities to a private view attended by a large number of creative practitioners.

To me, one of the tests of a museum display is its ability to provoke conversations amongst its visitors. ‘New Dimensions’ certainly got the Women Leaders group talking – but not much could stop them. It has also gained the museum attention in the local press and stimulated discussion amongst other local artists via social media.

As with any collaboration, to make a project of this sort successful, it is really important to develop clarity between the partners about what each wants out of the partnership, what success looks like to the different partners, what contributions each will make and how the costs and benefits will be shared.

I’ll be interested to hear further along the run the extent to which ‘New Dimensions’ has brought new audiences to the museum or to contemporary art. I hope many find it – this lovely museum does not shout its presence in the surrounding area. Indeed the brightly coloured signage of Taunton’s Mecca Bingo is much more eye-catching than the museum’s discreet monochrome and glass sign on Castle Green. Some flags or banners would be a great addition and the Museum of Somerset clearly has good links with local creative practitioners who might help them with this.

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