By Mark Carnall, on 7 February 2014
Guest post by Claire Dwyer one of the curators of the current Octagon Gallery exhibition, Collecting: Knowledge in Motion.
What do crocodile skin handbags, ‘Agatha Christie’s picnic basket’, an overstuffed Bosc’s monitor lizard, a fourteenth century Jewish prayer book and a cabinet of keys have in common? All can be found in the latest exhibition in the Octagon Gallery, which opened on January 21st 2014. Collecting: Knowledge in Motion is the outcome of a collaboration by a group of UCL academics who responded to a call to curate an exhibition which reflected the theme of ‘movement’. As one of the academics who curated the exhibition in this guest blog post I offer some personal reflections. Other members of the team will offer their own comments in subsequent posts.
Invited to join colleagues from History (Margot Finn and Kate Smith) and Dutch (Ulrich Tiedau and Stefanie van Gemert) in this project, I was excited to take on the role of novice curator but also daunted at the prominent space at UCL we were required to fill. Spending the last six months in preparation for the exhibition has been a wonderful collaborative experience – learning from talented colleagues from other disciplines and having the unique experience of exploring UCL’s amazing collections. It is interesting to map how far we moved from our original ideas and how much this was shaped by what we found in the collections. We came together partly because all of us are researching movement in different ways – particularly the significance of travelling material cultures through time and space. As we shared our own research interests and thought about the exhibition, the idea emerged to think about UCL as an institution which is also in motion – spatially and intellectually. Encountering UCL’s amazingly eclectic and diverse collections we were confronted both with the mobilities underlying the collections and the difficulties inherent in knowing and documenting these different trajectories. Our exhibition reflects how UCL’s collections are sites of knowledge production and the partialities and incompleteness of such knowledge as it travels.
The museum curators responded to our interest in travelling objects by presenting us with an exciting cornucopia of curios. Those crocodile skin handbags are housed in UCL’s Grant Museum, seized by customs as illegal imports, perhaps thirty years ago, and then given to the museum as potential teaching aids. We chose to exhibit them alongside other bags, and carrying devices, from UCL’s ethnography collection. Collected by former UCL anthropologists the Congolese medicine man and the Sudanese basket in the exhibition are now detached from a detailed historical record of why and how they were acquired, or their use. The taxidermy Bosc’s monitor lizard was another seized item which ended up in the Grant Museum his open mouthed grin, revealing inexpert cotton wool stuffing, made him an appealing mascot for our exhibition. Like the crocodile skin hand bags he’s an ambiguous part of the Grant Museum’s collection, unsuitable for teaching and yet alluring to museum visitors!
Other parts of the exhibition take up the theme of knowledge in motion from different directions – drawing directly on the intriguing items we found. We were drawn not only to some of the most precious items in UCL’s collections but to those which seemed to invite conjecture and uncertainty. As Kate Smith will discuss in a subsequent post, the filing cabinet of keys which are no longer used and not always labelled, and the collection of ‘orphaned labels’ were particularly resonant.
My own recent research has focused on the significance of faith and spirituality for migrants reflecting on the construction of congregational spaces, both make-shift and more purpose built spectacular buildings, and the importance of travelling objects which have spiritual or emotional value. Although a resoundingly secular foundation, UCL is not an institution which refuses to engage with faith and belief. Indeed a network of scholars in the institution have recently been exploring the significance of religion, and how it might be negotiated, in the academy. By choosing some of the outstanding Jewish silverware housed in the UCL collection I wanted to reflect on UCL’s foundational stories – and particularly the role played by important Jewish philanthropists such as Gustave Tuck and Frederic Mocatta. The objects displayed, included a facsimile of a beautifully illustrated Castilian Jewish prayer book which dates from 1300, suggest the movement of a diaspora population which found refuge in London. Now in UCL’s collection these items are removed from the context of their former domestic religious use – but in the exhibition space they invite reflection and perhaps reconnection.
I juxtaposed these items with some much more contemporary, and rather less precious items, which nonetheless connect to the journeys of migrants in London. In collaborative research with local history museum, the Gunnersbury Park Museum, I was shown Hindu objects which were regularly retrieved from the Thames and presented to the museum. Research by the Museum of London (Riddle of Hindu Relics in the Thames) suggests that these are probably items used for domestic religious practice and discarded in the Thames. I was interested to think about how objects sometimes gain new significance through migration and how cultural and religious practices adapt through movement. However like other objects in this exhibition we often do not know about their significance for their owners once they have been removed and added to a collection.
We hope the exhibition will encourage visitors to learn more about UCL’s diverse and eclectic museum collections. We also would love visitors to respond to the exhibition’s theme of Knowledge in motion and look forward to your responses. Tell us what you think on Twitter at #UCLKimotion.
Claire Dwyer is the Co-Director of the migration research unit UCL Geography