The visual poetry of the museum and the use of artefact, categorisation and curiosity in contemporary art

Despite its prestige for the cutting edge, contemporary art can sometimes look to tradition. This essay has come out of a personal fascination with the use of the artefact, taxonomic display and the appropriation of curiosity in contemporary art. For me, this embodies a poetic, magical and even mythological sentiment towards the museum as well as a delight in the narrative potential of its knowledge and the reverence of its grandeur. The museum is a cultural symbol and its unique aesthetic, its authorial voice and its institutional framework are a powerful set of ideas to harness.

An archetypal institution of the ‘museum’ of which I talk is The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. There is a certain magic in the fact that here you find the classification consists of object groups of like form and function – it doesn’t distinguish between cultures or historical periods and in doing so unlocks a wealth of narratives and resonances between the objects themselves that might otherwise be lost.

The grand and austere connotations the museum holds come with the monumental buildings in which they are often housed as well as their historical significance as centres of knowledge and wisdom. The origins of the concept of the museum can be traced back into the early past. In Ancient Greece the word museum in its Greek form, mouseion, meant ‘seat of the Muses’ and it designated a philosophical institution or a place of contemplation. In fact, while there is no proof of the existence of museums in such early times there is evidence of collections of artefacts of religious, magical, aesthetic or historical value from Babylonian and even Palaeolithic times; perhaps an indication of the inherent human desire to collect. The word ‘museum’ was revived in the 15th century to describe the collection of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, although it described the concept of comprehensiveness rather than an institution. The precursors to the first official museums were the European renaissance Cabinets of Curiosities or Wunderkammer which were owned by rulers, aristocrats or practitioners of science. These were encyclopaedic collections of artefacts, art, natural history specimens and curios and were initially predominately aimed at displaying the patron’s intellectual superiority and worldly knowledge. They were later adopted by collectors who were concerned with the advancement of knowledge because of the increased spirit of inquiry typical of the era. These cabinets were the first introduction of the idea of things rather than words being the principle device of learning (Arnold, 2006, pg. 30-31) and represented an attitude to knowledge that was principally concerned with inspiring wonder.

The museum has acquired a kind of mythological status as it acts as a narrator of the mysterious and extraordinary stories, the rituals and practices, of cultures from around the world. Considering the institution in this way is interesting – while we traditionally consider them to be repositories for non-fiction, perhaps in the museum context we view information as narrative as well as for educational purposes, in other words it transcends its original purpose.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 2014, Photo credit & Copyright: Laura Plant

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 2014, Photo credit & Copyright: Laura Plant

Grayson Perry puts forward the idea that great cultural institutions such as the British Museum have become the equivalent of pilgrimage sites for the modern world. ‘As humans I think how we look at art has developed from the way we look upon gods, altars and relics in shrines and sacred places.’ (http://www.26fruits.co.uk) He suggests that we regard art galleries and museums in the same way we might a religious place of worship, with respect and sanctity.

Museums are weighty symbols of national identity. The connotations of cultural superiority and wealth they have promote this patriotic ideal and indeed fuel tourism. Despite criticism about the integrity of how they represent information, I think we still view the museum as a magical place in which we can encounter the pleasures of our imaginations and in which we can marvel at information in a similar manner to how we approach spiritual worship. Keith Thomson says of museums “they are repositories of the wonders of the world, dynamic participants in our interpretation of the past and places for launching dreams of the future” (Thomson, 2002, p. ix)

It is no surprise then that visual artists delve into this abundant pool of inspiration. There is an emergent breed of contemporary art which uses the museum as a conceptual, stylistic and presentational device – acknowledging the unique visual poetry of the museum and the evocative potential of its display methods. The changing role of the curator has opened up the potential of the exhibition space and has contributed to the blurring boundary between the roles of artist and curator and the consequent rise of installation art of this kind.

An example of an exhibition of this nature is Felicity Powell’s Charmed Life that was shown at the Wellcome Collection in October 2011. It involved Edward Lovett’s collection of Edwardian charms and amulets and a selection of Powell’s own works. Powell found the amulets, which are embodiments of human anxieties and superstitions and hold stories and memories of their estranged owners, had parallels with her own work which addresses the strange allure of objects. She decided to curate an exhibit of the amulet collection surrounded by her own pieces in order to create an interplay between the two entities, giving the viewer power to infer their own meanings according to the objects interrelationships and with themselves and to feel the implied human presence the objects leave behind.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 2014, Photo credit & Copyright: Laura Plant

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 2014, Photo credit & Copyright: Laura Plant

Museums are powerful pillars of our national heritage. They offer an established and often wondrous account of the world’s learning, holding the power for the production of knowledge. Taking an ethnographic object out of its original context elevates it from its status as an everyday object into a symbolic relic of culture – to this extent its display in a museum is often an invalid representation of its humble meaning. It is this authoritative voice that artists strive for in appropriating the museum – the ability to create fact or to elevate an object, to endow it with an aura of authenticity, significance and importance. Exploiting this is powerfully symbolic – using the term ‘museum’ to describe an artwork evokes a picture of a comprehensive or scientific study of the subject in question.

Simon Fujiwara’s captivating project The Museum of Incest (Limoncello, London, 2008) offers an eerie critique of the museum framework. The premise for this deliberately absurd museum is that without incest there would be no human race and Fujiwara constructs a trail of evidence to support this claim. The project uses the designation of ‘museum’ as a metaphoric term to evoke ideas about research, study, classification and authenticity. Fujiwara’s willfully spurious but superficially authentic outcome was kindled in a trip to the ‘cradle of mankind’ where he learnt that supposed scientific origin theories were often based on very little proof. In constructing his own authoritative version of human beginnings, he plays on our concepts of knowledge.

I wonder, however, whether it is what is not shown within the museum model which is most attractive to the artist. In placing importance on this you allow the audience to augment the spaces between the objects and let the implied resonances drive the meaning. This creation of meaning is poetic, often manifesting in the ghostly presence of an artefact’s separated owner, demonstrating our intrinsic relationship with objects. This idea of the conceptual value of the absent, a notion that is ephemeral and ambiguous, could be seen as a reversal of the original museum doctrine; to showcase a solid account of knowledge, an incontestable version of fact.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 2014, Photo credit & Copyright: Laura Plant

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 2014, Photo credit & Copyright: Laura Plant

It seems the museums appropriation in art is due to the endeavour of artists to capture the persevering magic of the museum experience, typified by some of the exhibitions I mention and the enduring popularity of institutions such as Pitt Rivers. As well as embodying the romanticised appeal of the past, which could reflect our disillusionment with the present, these exhibitions speak to us of ourselves. Our urge for collecting, which is evident since Paleolithic times, is a vital part of the human experience and museums indulge this passion for objects as well as our penchant for wonder and our thirst for curiosity. The artists’ desire to harness this is therefore no surprise.

Laura Plant

Laura Plant recently graduated from Falmouth University with a degree in Illustration. Her work takes its inspiration from folklore, superstition, science and ethnography and is often rooted in her love for the grand old museums of Britain. She is currently based in Bristol where she is working on illustration and writing projects as well as volunteering as an exhibitions assistant at Arnolfini art gallery and finding time to soak up Bristol’s lively art scene. She is currently in the process of organising a group exhibition and a winter film festival for January.


Featured Image: The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 2014, Photo credit & Copyright: Laura Plant



Arnold, K. (2006) Cabinets for the Curious, Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing

Maleuvre, D. (1999) Museum Memories, Stanford University Press

Pearce, S. (1995) On Collecting: An Investigation into collecting in the European tradition, London, Routledge

Powell, F. (2011) Exhibition leaflet for Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects at The Wellcome Collection, London

Simpson, M. G. (1996) Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era, London, Routledge

Thomson, K. S. (2002) Treasures on Earth, London, Faber and Faber

Electronic Sources

Perry, G. cited on http://www.26fruits.co.uk/blog/blogberry/the-artist’s-craft/ [accessed 1.13]

‘Miracles and Charms at Wellcome Collection’ (2011) http://www.wellcomecollection.org/press/press-releases/miracles-and-charms.aspx [accessed 1.14]

Roos-Brown, E. (2013) Is the Role of the Curator Evolving? http://artsfwd.org/changing-curators/ [accessed 11.13]

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