‘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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Study visit to ‘Mythology’ exhibition at Brading Roman Villa

January 2016

It was my great honour and pleasure to spend today accompanying a ‘museum cross cultural practice’ study visit to the ‘Mythology’ exhibition at Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight.

Set within one of the finest Roman sites in the UK, ‘Mythology’ is a major exhibition of new works by research-led artist, Howard Hardiman. Through digital drawing and storytelling, the work explores well known myths in, perhaps, unfamiliar ways. The trip was suggested by the museum’s Chief Executive Adam Watson. Adam is a member of the Hampshire Solent Museum Development Advisory Panel and was aware that we were looking to share examples of practice in museums’ cross cultural practice for others to learn from.

The visit was designed to give a small group of museum people the opportunity not only to view an example of an artist-museum collaboration but also to engage in dialogue with both the art practitioner in order to get a deeper understanding of the success factors and challenges of working together. The plan for the day was to pick the ‘study visitors’  up at Southampton station, cross on the car ferry, meet artist Howard Hardiman and museum boss Adam Watson for an introductory chat before a tour of the exhibition and then an intensive discussion over lunch, followed by the opportunity to visit the rest of the museum.

The dialogue began way before we even got to the museum, though. The study visit opportunity was taken up by two different museums and their representatives, who had never met before, found that they had much in common and many ideas to share. Both work in small independent Hampshire museums, and both are themselves involved in artistic practice.

Anne James, General Manager of King John’s House in Romsey, is also a textile artist and has managed a series of community arts projects and activities for adults and children at the museum. Anne wore an example of her own work to the visit, a gorgeous felted necklace. Margaret Marks, volunteer Development Manager at the Diving Museum in Gosport, is also an artist who has worked in textiles, as well as film and other media. Margaret was key in the production of the pirate movie that wowed the last meeting of the Hampshire Military Museums Network.

The ferry trip saw Anne and Margaret avidly comparing experiences and ideas over cup of tea: about everything from holiday activities, to interactive museum displays, to staff and volunteer management policies to Accreditation to the use of social media: both busily capturing notes of the ideas.

We arrived at Brading in chill weather to a warm welcome from education officer Spencer Brown and were take through to the museum’s Forum Cafe where Adam and Howard awaited, along with Artist / designer / Educator Ian Whitmore, who had contributed to the production of the Mythology exhibition.

Over a pot of tea, our introductory discussion explored Howard’s previous work and the original impetus behind the ‘Mythology’ exhibition. Who had approached who?

Howard had approached the museum, he said. It was far from his first artist-museum collaboration and he is to some extent a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, with experience working in museum access and interpretation at institutions including the National Maritime Museum and National Gallery. Howard has explored an exceptionally varied range of practices to bring museum collections to life for diverse audiences – from British Sign Language interpretation  to book illustration. Museums present a unique opportunity for the research-led artist to engage deeply with experts around a subject of common interest, says Howard.

Howard showed us his recent comic book Badger’s Day Out  and then told us about his earlier work The Lengths Developed from original interviews with male sex workers, the graphic novel explores their concerns and experiences.

Howard had asked the museum about the possibility of a collaborative exhibition, inspired by the villa’s mosaics and had also approached Arts Council England about potential funding via Grants for the Arts, its Lottery-funded grant programme for individuals, arts organisations and other people who use the arts in their work.

So, we asked Adam, how easy was it for Brading to say ‘yes’ to Howard’s proposal? Adam explained how the exhibition fitted in with the museum’s journey of change over the past 10 years. An ambition to encourage repeat visits through top quality temporary exhibitions had led to the museum achieving the Accreditation standard and creating a new high-security exhibition gallery capable of attracting significant loans from national museums. The new gallery opened in 2014 with British Museum’s travelling exhibition – Roman Sexuality, Images, Myths and Meanings, including the world famous Warren Cup  Since that time, the museum has hosted diverse exhibitions in the space, including other national museum touring shows – it’s a member of the Touring Exhibition Group and has found this a helpful network in developing the exhibition programme.

Building on this progress, it was easy for the museum to say ‘yes’ to ‘Mythology’ as it enabled the museum to host its first exhibition of new site-specific work in the gallery, whilst maintaining a strong link to the museum’s own collections. Howard had shown the museum two 2014 works – ‘Asterion’ and ‘Impenetrable’ – and used these to explain his idea and his approach to the exploration of mythology.

The key challenge was a logistical one. What if the museum committed to scheduling ‘Mythology’ in and then Howard was unsuccessful in his Grants for the Arts application? The risk was worth taking, they decided. It would be mitigated by a good long lead-in time, contingency options and paying close attention to the Grants for the Arts guidance provided by Arts Council England’s helpful Relationship Manager for Combined Arts South West, Nick Green.

Fortunately, the application was successful and the exhibition was supported with a grant of £11,920.

So why had Howard approached this particular museum? On moving from London to the Isle of Wight following a major back injury, the Roman Sex and Sexuality exhibition had initially drawn Howard to Brading. Howard explained the creative process whereby in ‘The Lengths’ he chose to draw the human characters with dogs’ heads, using different breeds to represent characters but creating a distance between the published story and the real individuals who had shared their experiences with him. At Brading, Howard had discovered the mosaics and been struck by the similarity between ‘The Lengths’’ dog-headed men and the villa’s enigmatic mosaic chicken-headed human figure. He saw the other mythical characters depicted in the mosaics, including the Medusa. He was also impressed by the museum’s highly developed disability provision, which meant that he was able to access the site fully on days when he needed to use a wheelchair. You can tell a lot about an institution’s attitude to different sorts of people from its disability access, observes Howard.

Having explored the background to the collaboration, we then headed into the gallery for the amazing privilege of an artist-led tour of the ‘Mythology’ exhibition,  which features 12 large (59cmx84cm) framed gelee prints, all produced in 2014 or 2015.

Some artists prefer not to talk about their work. Howard Hardiman is not one of these people. His research-led practice is such that the physical work of art displayed is just one manifestation of his profound engagement with his subject matter. In creating ‘Mythology,’ Howard read voraciously around the different myths explored, about the myth role of myths in society as narratives that support particularly understandings of reality, about different perspectives on the nature of myth and reality, devouring the works of writers from Plato to Mary Beard.

Touring the exhibition with Howard is an extraordinary experience. Whilst each work is designed as a standalone piece in its own right, the artist’s vivid verbal exploration of the myth that inspired it, the exposition and interpretation of that myth through Howard’s distillation of his research and then his explanation of the creative process between the research and the finished image are, in themselves, a work of art.
Like his near contemporary Grayson Perry, Howard is an artist for whom the commentary is a significant element of the work as a whole. This raises significant questions. Clearly, Howard was not able to offer all visitors over a four month run of the exhibition the benefit of a personal guided tour. Yet the labelling in the exhibition is almost minimalist. What steps had the artist and the museum taken to ensure that visitors could gain insight into the artist’s process? As well as an artist’s talk in October 2015 and notes available to be borrowed in the gallery, there is a specially produced booklet, available for sale in the gift shop, includes all twelve of the images, with Howard’s ‘companion stories’ and an introduction from Adam Watson and an essay by artist Jonathan Parsons.

The final element of the tour was a discussion of the two Roman artefacts displayed in a case in the exhibition. We discussed how they had been chosen by Howard and the museum’s Assistant Curator Jasmine Wroath working together. We learned that their presence in the exhibition was due to the fact that the case is a permanent fixture of the gallery and so drove a decision to present 3D objects alongside the 2D works. This led to an interesting discussion of the practical challenges of mounting this principally 2D art exhibition in a gallery designed specifically to hold high value 3D objects. We were shown how solid panels had been installed screening the gallery’s permanent high-security wall-mounted display cases and heard about some of the logistical issues of delivering such change to the physical space in a limited time window. This led to a discussion of other challenges that had arisen in terms of museum staff capacity and the extent to which Howard had needed to adapt his plans and involve his assistance team (including Ian) to ensure the installation was completed in time. Both Adam and Howard acknowledged misunderstandings around the respective commitments of museum and artist at this stage led to some tensions. However both have now learned from this, they will be better placed for a future collaboration. The solid panels are also now available to be reused for future displays of 2D work. These are just two of the ways in which ‘Mythology’ has created capital that can be employed in future artist/museum collaborations.

Back in the Forum Cafe, we talked about the technique used to produce the show. Howard and Ian showed us how use of a graphics tablet and Manga Studio software enable Howard’s exceptionally detailed and delicate line drawing. This led to a discussion of the relationship between the work in this show and the world of comics. Howard talked about his recent visits to comic art festivals in northern England  – the ‘Mythology’ booklet had sold very well there, he said – and in this way the exhibition had unexpectedly reached an off-island audience.

By now it was well past our scheduled lunchtime. A sustaining bowl of the Forum Cafe’s excellent home made soup accompanied our final discussions of the day.
We returned to Howard’s experience of working with Brading as a disabled artist who experiences chronic pain and impaired mobility. He faces structural barriers to fully engaging in many art work activities. For instance, a typical Private View – often a key networking opportunity in the world of contemporary visual arts – is prohibitive, involving standing and turning for a significant time.

I gathered the group’s thoughts on 3 questions: What’s the best thing about museum/artist collaboration? What are the main challenges to be overcome? What one top tip would you give to someone thinking of undertaking one?

What’s the best thing about museum/artist collaboration?

Opens the museum to wider creative thinking and displays/exhibitions which otherwise may not have been considered

Bringing to life objects, especially that may be overlooked. Turns dusty objects to something now special.

Chance to get really excited about the subject with experts.

Access to stimulus.

A new/different view of the artefacts – bringing a new perspective to the exhibit.

What are the main challenges to be overcome?

Expectations around what can be provided by museums and staff around hanging materials and staffing. Make sure everyone is clear about what can be provided.

Not knowing what you are going to get at the end of it. Being able to trust artist to produce more or less something that you have in your mind.

Museums are not galleries, very little prior interaction and different audiences. Oh, and funding when it’s not a selling exhibition!

Expectations and assumptions. What artists do, how they think, what they require. Ditto – what museums do, think and require.

Overcoming preconceived views by museums as to what is art and the relevance to the museum artefacts.

What one top tip would you give to someone thinking of undertaking a museum-artist collaboration?

Tip for museum: Don’t be afraid to try.

Don’t take the first artist that comes along. Investigate and see other work.

Plan. Lots. To know subject, logistics and needs. Lots of planning!

For museums and artists to meet to develop ideas/projects together.

Keep talking to each other – try to understand other’s viewpoint.

The fact that our two ‘study visitors’ are both themselves artists as well as museum people added richness to the discussion that followed, with participants switching perspectives as they explored the issues. We shared experiences from around the table and also learned more about the economic model for ‘Mythology’ – which is a selling exhibition, with commercial benefits for both the artist and the museum. Howard explained how the Arts Council’s funding is structured to encourage this aspect, a positive approach to supporting the economic sustainability of arts and museum activity.

All too soon, it was time to dash for the ferry, reflecting on the journey on the learning from the day and thinking forward to Margaret and Anne’s plans for future artist collaborations in their own museums.

A huge thank you to all involved in a most stimulating and enjoyable day.