My life in a museum case
By Subhadra Das, on 15 February 2013
Only once in my life have I ever encountered an object in a museum display case which delivered such an emotional sucker-punch as to physically stop me breathing.
One of the fun things about objects in museum collections is the way in which you can appreciate them in the context of your own life, experiences, sometimes even your own body. For example, when looking at the gynaecology specimens in UCL’s pathology collections they are full of resonance for me because I’ve got similar (hopefully considerably less diseased) bits sitting inside me and because my mother was, for over four decades, a gynaecologist and obstetrician.  In the Galton Collection, I have classified my hair and eye colour according using the colour scales and devices which were used at the Galton Laboratory.
I’ve also experienced those little moments of recognition for things which, even when you see them for the first time, are somehow immediately familiar and speak directly to you. The ones I remember best are the hugely spectacular – like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio – and those that refer to memorable thoughts and experiences. On a visit to Nottingham, I was blown away by these ivory chessmen which sit in a case at Nottingham Museum and Art Gallery and are exactly like the ones described in my favourite novel. I stood gawping at those chessmen for much longer than any other exhibit in the museum, even the fancy modern artworks which were what I had actually gone to see. Running a close second on the same trip was the statue of Robin Hood at the bottom of the hill leading up to the castle, which featured in a documentary about Torvill and Dean, a recording of which I had watched repeatedly and obsessively as a five-year-old.
Given that I am aware of the evocative power of objects, the emotional (and physical!) winding I mentioned at the start of this blog may have been a shock, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise. The object in question was this, in one of the more innocuous displays at the Design Museum in Copenhagen. Up until that point I had been happily strolling through the galleries taking pictures of chairs – of which they have an extensive typology, going ‘Oooh…!’ at the Japanese porcelain vessels and trying to work out why there was a bottle of Heineken in a case that otherwise only exclusively held antique silverware.
Then, suddenly, blithely sitting in a case, was this; my Dad’s CD player.
One of my Dad’s extensive repertoire of hobbies was music and he was a gadget fiend of the highest calibre. Over twenty years from the late 1970s he bought a series of Bang & Olufsen (he used to call them Bang & Offsen; I didn’t know how it was actually spelled or pronounced until I was nearly 19) sound systems. Most of them were earlier models than this, but the CD player and remote control on the top shelf of this case are exactly the same.
Dad’s first, and arguably most monumental purchase was, was, I think, the Beocentre 3300. According to my Mum, this was bought in 1978, a year after they moved to the United Arab Emirates and a couple of years before I was born. It cost a whole month of my parents’ combined salary and my Mum nearly had a fit, but it turned out to be a serious investment which, in the end, even outlasted my Dad.
That sound system was my Dad’s utter pride and joy. When it was new, I remember people being invited round to look at it (although only a rare few were actually invited to sit and listen to it at work). Dad bought further pieces – the Beocenters 2200, 9500, and Beolab 150 amplifiers, and doubtless many others I no longer remember or recognize, to supplement the music system, hiring our friendly carpenter to build more and more bits of furniture to house them. By the time I was in my early teens we had the fixings of a miniature concert hall striding the living room like a Colossus.
On Fridays – which were the sole one-day weekend in Abu Dhabi – my parents would use the purpose-purchased coffee percolator to make good coffee and sit with their drinks and sweet pastries and listen to music. Dad’s philosophy was that if you’ve only got the one day off a week, it is your prerogative to do either nothing or only those things which give you the greatest pleasure. I would emerge from my teenage lie-ins to a flat full of the smell of really nice coffee and the bass vibrating through the carpet. Everything was calm and restful, safely perfect and perfectly safe.
They tended to listen to western music at the weekends – Dad saved the Indian Classical music for late nights and friends. Dad was a massive fan of the big voiced singers like Tom Jones, Barbra Streisand and Shirley Bassey, while Mum preferred the more laid back stylings of Perry Como and Andy Williams. Other notable artists on Friday mornings include Richard Clayderman, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, Boney M and Jim Reeves. They may not have been the most discerning of choices – no Dark Side of the Moon or David Bowie, but I could learn those anywhere. The music we had at home was fun.
The CD player, the same as the one in the case, was a newer addition. It was a Beogram CD 4500, bought some time, I think, in the early 90s Looking back, that is remarkably early consumption of CD technology. By the time I graduated from high school, the United Arab Emirates had a per capita consumption of CDs ranked third in the world after the United States and the UK, most of which, I remain convinced, was due to my father.
While it was mostly responsible for heightened and happy emotions, the sound system on occasion elicited other, less favourable reactions. When I was four or five, we came back from visiting family in India to find that the German Shepherd puppy acquired a few months ago had not only doubled in size, he had also thought it would be fun to chew the material and corners of the two large speakers. The remote control in the museum case is the twin brother of the one I once threw across the room in a fit of temper, eliciting such a scolding that I’m nearly crying now just writing about it.
But mostly the things I remembered in that instant that seemed to last for days before my breath came back were happy. There was the first time I heard Elaine Paige sing ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,’ the night were Dad let me stay up late even though it was a school night to listen to a his new Ustad Vilayat Khan record which must have gone on for at least four hours, the time when my friend Mimi brought over the soundtrack to Dil Se and we danced to ‘Chaiya Chaiya’, the way Dad was used to say – at the the time it seemed about almost everything – ‘Now this is real music.”
So, there’s something about this ‘object’, or perhaps more particularly this experience that is almost unbearably poignant. It speaks to me about my Dad more than the pathology heart specimen which illustrates the congenital disease that eventually killed him when I was 19. I barely notice that specimen as walk past it on the shelf at work (although admittedly I know exactly where it is and it’s one of the few specimens in collection whose number I can remember without trying).
It is this Spartan assemblage, not the thumping mass of muscle tissue that inevitably and finally succumbed to disease and exhaustion, that is his real heart.
Which isn’t a bad show for two objects in a museum case.
Subhadra Das is Curator of the UCL Galton and Pathology Collections, and is one of a team working across UCL Teaching & Research Collections.
 Now that she has retired, I’ve got plans to ship her in to help me curate the collection. We will drink Earl Grey tea and nibble on Indian sweets and she will tell me about all the cases she encountered in her training and career, her memory jogged by looking at the specimens.
 More about this in a blog to come.
 And before you ask, no, I don’t watch Dancing on Ice, in fact I had to ask my office mates what the name of the show was and then google it because they didn’t know either.
 According to the B&O website it would have been between 1989 and 1992. It is really super-odd having to establish a terminus post quem in my own life by looking up things on the internet. Although, possibly not as weird as curating an object in someone else’s collection in the context of my own life.