Atomism & Animism, Science Museum, London (1997 to 1999)
This museum-wide collection interpretation project was the fruit of my two-year research residency at the Science Museum. The exhibition was created with some 130 objects, disposed in 16 installations across the museum’s many galleries and existent displays. The main intellectual focus of Atomism & Animism was the rapport between matter and spirit, and it ranged across a wide field of science practice and method. Ultimately, it was a form of philosophy of science, effected through the objects of science itself; objects that had been collected for the Science Museum as emblematic of significant moments in the history of science.
Objects ranging in age from those that were undated, through the 1st century AD and up to 1994 were requisitioned from about 50 of the 140 named collections cared for by some 35 curators and assistant curators. Others were borrowed from individual artists, and from collections such as The British Museum, The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, and the Wilberforce Museum in Hull.
A core display located in the Museum’s Picture Gallery was practically an exhibition in itself (‘blue room’ images), and formed a kind of orientation centre for the whole project, which radiated out across the Museum in more discrete installations. These installations were subtle, contextual and grafted into existing displays so that they created a powerful counterpoint to what was already there, rather than either refuting, ignoring, or attempting to over-ride it. Each of the installations intended to resonate with or alter slightly that context in order to bring a new meaning to objects which already told a number of stories, by highlighting their complexity rather than downplaying it, as was the case in most of the Museum’s existent displays. Atomism & Animism was an intricate but diffuse exhibition that took place in a number of levels simultaneously: modest in scale, but great in scope.
In creating Atomism & Animism, I employed formal analysis and isomorphic comparison, juxtaposition of scale and of dimensions, puncturing realism and creating alternative narrative scenarios, rupturing received meaning through insertion and intervention in existent displays.
Some of the titles of the installations themselves, conjoined with the case labels and the image gallery below, will give you are sense of the project’s many references: Bones in the Wellcome Medical Galleries; Anemic Cinema in the Picture Gallery; Frogs’ Legs in the Veterinary History Gallery; Bodies in the Computing Then and Now Gallery; Cargo in the Shipping Gallery; Gold Dust in the Nuclear Physics and Power Gallery and more.
Atomism & Animism was above all an intervention in a field which was an intervention about that field. As a collection interpretation, its basic assumption was that objects can be subject to multiple interpretations and have an innate capacity therefore to signify concurrently in a number of different and sometimes even conflicting registers: the chronological, the formal, the disciplinary, the aesthetic. If this quality is embraced, and used skilfully with attention to equally multiple contexts, it means that individual objects can become pivots, or hinges, between separate thoughts and even separate modes of thinking: careful juxtaposition of objects can actually produce new thoughts. The following quote is from the core of the rationale of my final exhibition proposal:
Scientific endeavour is a cultural activity in the widest sense of the adjective’s meaning. Bringing together objects in the Museum not yet seen together, and with judicious borrowing from other institutions, I want to highlight the most important methodological similarity between artistic and scientific practice: the tuning of the gaze and the consequent ability to make visual connections between things in order to produce new meanings.
What does the exhibition title mean? Atomism is essentially the theory that there is a smallest particle of matter which is indivisible and remains unchanging and unchanged regardless of the field any group of atoms might compose together. Animism is the belief that objects — the matter atoms make — all have a spirit or force of some kind. Both ideas are very old, persistent cultural beliefs.
How do these two ideas relate to each other, and what do they teach us about human patterns of thinking, including scientific thought? Is the ‘force’ of one the ‘field’ of the other? In this exhibition, I wish to represent this ‘force field’ with the very objects belonging to the Science Museum itself.
This is the heart of Atomism & Animism’s method and investigation. What I wanted to create — or locate — was a ‘field of mentality’ within the Science Museum itself which could admit concurrently to the scientific and the non-scientific in ways that would throw light on both for the visitor. I wanted to train the eye of the visitor to truly ‘observe’ in an inviting, non-didactic way; ‘jump-start’ a productive new thought by appealing to what is partially evident in the objects, and partially hidden in the visitor’s own mind. I wanted to investigate what sort of bridges objects can compose together between themselves, and then further to the private world of an individual’s thoughts and beliefs. I wanted to actively generate a phenomenological experience in a visitor.
It is doubtless a rarity that any one person should have seen as great a number of the objects in the Science Museum collection (in store and on display) across the many different disciplines it covers in so short a time as I did in my two years in residence. This collection is not only vast in terms of the sheer number of objects which it contains. It also includes material from every continent and most cultures, and spans a period from pre-history to the immediate present and prototypes for the future. The scope of its material culture encompasses everything from folk medicine to electronic technologies, from the microscopic to the gigantic. The variety of ways in which the collection is displayed is also wide-ranging. Exhibition design of the last thirty years is evident in all its epochs at the Science Museum.
In short, the raw amount of objects, the variety of stories they are already arranged to tell, and the panoply of presentation styles in which these stories are told, multiply each other exponentially to make up a sea of possibilities for intervention in any register; social, political, formal, emotional or psychological.
To effect an interpretation of the collections means relying on the collaboration — intellectual, technical and otherwise — of the curators of those collections. These exchanges were critical in orienting me in terms not only of individual collections — the organisational structure of which is sometimes more organic than logical — but also of the overarching principles of the museum’s management. Curators generously spoke to me about their collections, their jobs and their own curatorial plans, also often clarified aspects of science and scientific practice.
Members of staff in other areas of the museum were also crucial to the success of this project. Assistant Director in charge of collections Dr Derek Robinson steered the project through the complexities of museum management with expert care, and Gilly Burton, then Head of Graphics in the Museum’s Design Studio, supported and enhanced the project seamlessly to dovetail with existent styleguides while maintaining its own profile as a ‘distributed’ exhibition. Gilly also introduced me to Michael Martin of Oblique Design, whose work you see in the case labels and more. For the Museum, this was a major project as well — it was their first artist project of this scale. A dozen years later, the Science Museum now has a dedicated Arts Programme, which regularly programmes artists’ projects for the Museum.
Making Atomism & Animism was exciting, complex and rewarding. It marks a turning point for me in my museological apprenticeship, and was an affirmation of the power and importance of interdisciplinary practice in institutional settings. I was later to reflect on this in my doctoral project, From Le Musée des Sciences to the Sciences Museum (2004). It is an affiliation that has continued collegially since that time: more recently, I worked with Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research at the Science Museum, assisting in planning for the development of the Museum’s research profile. And of course, I often visit the galleries — some of the best in the world.
[Image References: all images are of Atomism & Animism, by Martha Fleming (1999), with the exception of the fourth image on this page, which is of the Science Museum Astronomy Collection store-rooms at Blythe House in 1998. The two case labels (Frogs’ Legs and Cargo) in the middle of this page were written by Martha Fleming and designed by Michael Martin of Oblique Design]