Tag Archive for: SciArt

Artists Work in the (Science) Museum

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‘Science Lesson,’ Artists work in the museum: histories, interventions and subjectivity, Victoria and Albert Museum (October 2012)

“Artists, curators, historians and museum professionals explore the history of artists as museum professionals, museum and archive as the content of artistic production, the hidden subjectivity of the many artists working in museums and galleries alongside their practice and the dynamic roles they play in 21st century museums and galleries.”      (Artists work in the museum conference programme outline)

 

When even the Directors of institutions such as Yale University Art Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia are both art-school trained, it is worth looking more closely at what this means and how it happens. The Artists work in the museum conference, organised by Dr Linda Sandino (cross-appointed to a key research position straddling the V+A and the University of the Arts London) and Matilda Pye (who has worked extensively at both V+A and Tate, and was trained at both the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and the Jan Van Eyck Academy) began to seriously chart this significant territory.

There is a marked difference between coming into a museum as an exhibiting artist, being an artist effecting work for a museum on a freelance contract, and being an artist employed in a salaried position in a museum over time.  I myself have done all three. Further, there are huge differences between art museums, science museums, and museums of material culture and civilisation. Again, I have worked across all these kinds of institutions in one capacity or another, deepening and strengthening my interdisciplinary practice. But the experience most artists have of working with museums – as employees or as exhibitors – is mainly in institutions of fine and decorative arts, and archaeological or historical material culture collections.  Science, natural history, and medical museums are a road less travelled.

I have moved not only between studio and museum, but also between art and science. Not just a ‘stranger,’ as Georg Simmel would have it, in several realms at once, but also a double double-agent of sorts – and it is all that I bring that is of value to each discrete community to which I contribute. My conference paper explored what I bring to museums and how is it valued (or not!) as well as exploring some of the issues when one ‘crosses over.’  When does the artist’s engagement with museums start to become simply ‘working in museums’ and when does the outsider become an insider?  I outlined some of the typologies, patterns and recent historical contexts, before turning to the specifics of my experience with museums of the history of science and those with scientific collections – medical, natural historical and otherwise.

Many would persuasively argue that science itself is a cultural production, and certainly history of science has produced some robust tools for exploring this thesis. But science has its own ‘culture wars,’ and science museums their own conflicts – between collections research and keystage teaching interactives, for example. Parsing the difference between teaching science, teaching the history of science, and teaching people how to think about science is essential here. Sadly, the value to science of arts and humanities methodologies is a case yet to be made in the wider world, let alone in museums. I firmly believe that museums are a good place to work on such a project.

 

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One of the institutions that has chosen to harness the value of the arts and humanities to science is the Wellcome Trust.  Though their approach has a specific focus, it has in turn contextually benefited other more exploratory research and practice.  Among the Wellcome projects I have contributed to in a consultancy capacity is the set of workshops held to develop what has become the Wellcome Collections exhibition space.

At those workshops, just short of a decade ago, I distributed a crib-sheet about commissioning and working creatively with artists in science museums.  Some of the methodological innovations I proposed were quite new then, and sprang directly from my professional experience at the Science Museum (London) and in history of science contexts.

I proposed the identification of research and exhibition subjects that have been historically difficult for museums to embrace, and then inviting artists to work on development teams to address them.  I suggesting that when planning infrastructural upgrades, management workflows, and critical paths for exhibition making, that museums fold in advice on needs and practice from artists and lessons from working with them.  I underlined the importance to project management of designing dovetailed critical paths for museum practice and artistic practice, and entreated museums to create induction manuals for these practitioners.  Ultimately, museums need to work with artists as respectfully as with any other professional colleagues, keeping up to date with artists and their work, meeting people and developing long-term relationships and networks over time.  Time and money are essential here, as with all museum work: artists are not just cheap intellectual sub-contracting for research or education departments.   (pdf of my crib-sheet Working with Artists in Science Museums, 2004)

Of course, many will recognise these techniques and process models from more recent innovations in museum practice – inclusive and participatory museum activities that have sprung in some cases out of audience development initiatives and in other cases out of restitution and knowledge exchange leadership.  I am just as interested in the way in which these techniques enable truly interdisciplinary work to take place in museums.  I will be speaking about the relationship between inclusion and interdiscipinarity in Copenhagen in May 2013 at a conference organised by the Danish Cultural Agency on Social Learning and Knowledge Producing Processes.

In the meanwhile, back at the V+A, the conference that Linda and Matty organised made clear that a serious research programme examining the deep and lasting influence of the artist in all forms of museum practice is an imperative in regards to museum history – and indeed the Museums and Galleries History Group was a partner in bringing this event to the public.  In fact, as we learned from Susannah Avery-Quash’s presentation about Sir Charles Eastlake as the founding director of the National Gallery, London, artists have been effective museum directors since at least the 19th Century. Wunderkammer Press will be publishing a proceedings volume from the conference: I hope that’s just the beginning!

 

Further Links:  Artists Work in the Museum: Victoria and Albert Museum; Artists Work in the Museum Programme; Wunderkammer Press; Martha Fleming on Working With Artists in Science Museums; Collaboration and Co-creation Tools for Museums; Jock Reynolds Director Yale University Art Galleries; Social Learning and Knowledge Producing Processes: Copenhagen

[Image References:  Detail of the reconstruction of the workbench of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in the Deutsches Museum, Munich; detail from a photo of the Children’s Gallery at the Science Museum in 1949; Gene Sequencer with toy mascots at the Natural History Museum]

 

Materials Library

Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Materials Library, School of Physical Sciences and Engineering, King’s College London (2007 to 2010)

 

Dedicated to exploring the structure of materials and their relation to form and phenomenology, the Materials Library is a highly interdisciplinary research centre and sample collection.  Positing, theorising and demonstrating deep links between the makeup of matter and our complex experience and use of it in cultural and structural contexts brings engineering directly into the realm of philosophy.

My work with the Materials Library included advisory participation in strategic development and in several events, as well as co-supervision with Principal Investigator Mark Miodownik and Professor Alan Read of the successful doctoral project of curator Zoe Laughlin. This was a non-stipendiary affiliation: much of my work in this period was focused in Copenhagen, and the development of Split + Splice.

Among the most successful arts-science labs in the UK, The Materials Library has affiliations across the spectrum from museums such as Tate and Wellcome Collections to design development centres like the Norsk Design- og Arkitektursenter in Oslo, as well as the Cheltenham Science Festival and more.

In 2008, the Library held a series of joint ESRC funded seminars with the University College London Department of Anthropology, entitled New Materials, New Technologies: Innovation, Future and Society.  As of 1 February 2012, Mark Miodownik is Professor of Materials and Society at UCL, and the Materials Library itself has moved along with him to University College London.

 

 

Further Links: The Institute of Making

Consultant: Wellcome Trust

Consultant to the Wellcome Trust, London (2003 to 2004)

I have been a judge of the Wellcome Trust SciArt Research and Production Grants and also participated in the international development workshop exploring the form and direction of what was to become the Wellcome Collections exhibitions space in the Euston Road.  I contributed to the evaluation of the Medicine Man exhibition that took place at the British Museum in 2003 prior to its reworking for permanent installation in Wellcome Collections. The Wellcome Trust also sought my views in this period for a Discussion Group formulating grants policy in arts, public engagement, and medical humanities.

 

In 1996, the Wellcome Trust initiated an ambitious and forward-thinking funding stream to bring visual artists, film-makers, theatre practitioners, composers and musicians, choreographers and dancers and more together with their peers working in biomedical practice.  Though this was in the main a ‘public engagement’ activity for the Trust, it began to produce some very interesting artworks that begged as many important questions as they answered.  Granted, not all of what was produced under the short-lived title of sciart was very good — but then, there’s a lot of not terribly good science and not terribly good art out there already!

Sciart ran as a funding programme for a decade, and went through a period of partnership with Arts Council England, Scotland and the Gulbenkian Foundation before being wound down by Wellcome in 2006.  It was then absorbed into the general grants programme of the Trust.  The year I which I was a juror both for Research and Development and for Production Grants (2004), the programme was still run by Bergit Arends, who co-authored with her colleague Verity Slater the book Talking Back to Science: Art, science and the personal (Wellcome Trust, 2004).  Bergit is now Curator of Contemporary Arts at the Natural History Museum, where I met up with her again when I was working at the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the NHM.

Later that year, the Trust led an international workshop with directors and curators from medical museums, broadcasters, artists and others to discuss new uses for the Wellcome Trust building on the Euston Road.  Updating The Wellcome Story: 183 Euston Road gave a clear picture of the Trust’s plans for what was to become Wellcome Collections, and it was an exciting few days in which exchanges helped to finesse and improve the project design and also the potential for partnerships of the centre.  I spoke on the practicalities, advantages and future development of working with artists in science museums and museums of medicine.*

That workshop was the first official working day of the Wellcome Collections’ new curator, James Peto.  James and I had first worked together on my project Open Book, which he curated in 1996 while he was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  We also worked together later in 2004/2005 as he straddled his new Wellcome Collections post and his final project at the Design Museum, where he had worked for almost a decade: I assisted James in the curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

Ken Arnold, who is now Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust, directed and co-curated the exhibition Medicine Man. It first opened at the British Museum in June of 2003, while the buildings on the Euston Road were being constructed — and closed for reconstruction.  This first incarnation of Medicine Man was one of the most exciting exhibitions I have ever seen.  Between Ken’s deep knowledge of Henry Wellcome’s collecting practice, and the skills of Caruso St John applied to the exhibition design, a true sense of the collections emerged from the very high density of object display.

It was here that one felt both the enormity and magnitude of the collection, and an inkling of Wellcome’s thinking and his vision for it.  While making Atomism & Animism, I worked at Blythe House where the Science Museum keeps and cares for the remains of Wellcome’s collections; I can assure you that as installed at the British Museum, Medicine Man evoked the real thing.

Here is an excerpt from my written report about the exhibition:

I believe that the choices made for this exhibition’s contents and design were extremely sensitive and intellectually sound, and that the structure of Henry Wellcome’s collection both revealed and reformed itself like a crystal lattice around the organising principles of the show.

It is not a revisionist history of Wellcome’s collecting practice, but one which addresses the mind of the man himself in a way that evokes the intellectual context of his work in this domain, and by extension, how these thought patterns entered the more health-progressive and lucrative areas of his activities.

Echoes of the collecting model of the Pitt-Rivers collection can also be seen in the choice of the curators to use form as a teach-tool for contemporary visitors in the design of the exhibition. This is not just a museological trope or reference: Wellcome would have been very aware of the Pitt-Rivers Museum and it would have influenced his collecting and his rapport with material culture and the culture of health and healing the world over: several of the contributors to the catalogue reference this explicitly.

For the design of Medicine Man to incorporate Pitt-Rivers’ display principles is in fact a way in to the mind of Henry Wellcome. It also happens to be a display form accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of education or the language they speak: one can literally see the evolution of an instrument or an idea unfolding from one object to the next. Thus the curators and designers were able to leap from Wellcome’s mind directly into the mind of the visitor by organising the exhibition this way: it seems to me that this kind of communication is what the Trust is all about.

 

 

* I also gave this talk — Working With Artists in Science Museums — in 2007 at the Steno Museum, University of Aarhus, and am currently preparing it for publication.

Further Links:  Wellcome Trust; Wellcome Trust Sciart Programme Outline; Report; Medicine Man; Wellcome Collections; Caruso St John Exhibition and Museum Design

[Images references:  Mechanical arm (detail), Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum London (1850 – 1910); Installation of Medicine Man at the British Museum, design Caruso St John (2003)]

Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust

Founding Trustee, Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust for Art and Science (2000 to 2003)

 

My governance experience of this art-science educational trust extended to the creation of a lecture series portfolio for our partnership with the Royal Institution of Great Britain. This built on the annual lectures which we had already been running — roundtable and keynote presentations on art and science. The Rosen Trust hosted a variety of events at the RI including speakers such as Carl Djerassi, Howard Hodgkin, Richard Gregory, Sander Gilman, Steve Baker, Brenda Maddox, Claire Tomalin, Dan Fern and others. Subjects included music and mathematics, epidemiology and representation, human-animal relations, scientific biography, colour and more.

I was invited by Dennis Rosen’s children to be a founding Trustee of this small but dynamic Trust, alongside Professor Sir Eric Ash, Professor Lisa Jardine, and Professor Richard Kitney.  As the only artist in this illustrious group, it was my pleasure to art direct the Trust brand, and I worked with graphic designer Michael Martin of Oblique Design to create stationery and a logo for the Trust.  I based this on a series of roundelles that featured in the artist’s website I had created for the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford, entitled Rain of Atoms. Of course, there is rather more to good governance than good design, and my experience with artist-run centres and on editorial boards in Canada prior to moving to the UK stood me in good stead.

From the Trust’s website:

Dennis Rosen was a scientist who took the trouble to be a well-rounded man. A biophysicist who specialised during the latter stages of his career in pattern recognition, he was as curious about the application of this technique in science and medicine as in fine art and painting. His love of theatre, music and history were deep-rooted parts of his life that supplemented his scientific activities.

I had first heard of Dennis Rosen when I bought the book he co-authored with his wife, Sylvia, entitled London Science: Museums, Libraries and Places of Scientific, Technological and Medical Interest (1994).  Of course, I had already visited a number of the repositories they listed, but it was an important guide for me when I first moved to the UK shortly after it was published.  Though slightly out of date now — mainly for all the right reasons that many of the collections it describes are now more publicly acccessible — it is still a very insightful and helpful volume.

 

Further Links:  The Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust