Collections
Sunday
May122013

Charles Paget Wade's Snowhill Manor

We visited Snowhill Manor yesterday, a true collector's paradise set in an idyllic Gloucestershire valley in the Cotswolds (UK). It is packed full of the late Charles Paget Wade’s incredible collection of objects, that he amassed over the course of his entire life. Every room offers a completely different experience from the previous one, laid out as a visual feast for the eyes and akin to a continous journey of eccentric discovery.

Even before you get to the front door, the entry ticket - designed in a typical Arts and Crafts-style, hints at the truly personalised visit that awaits.

From oriental furniture to a room full of Samurai soldiers, fine clocks to heraldic shields, musical instruments to early bicycles, thousands of treasures are displayed just as Charles Wade intended.

His passion for collecting began when he was just 7 years old, thanks in part to the influence of his Grandma and her cabinet of curiosities. After inheriting a fortune from his father in 1911, he both purchased and restored Snowhill to house his vast collection in what is a truly amazing setting. Living in the simple cottage next door, he would invite influencial friends and students to visit the house and study the collection. Upon his death in 1956, he left it all to the National Trust, who have done an excellent job in keeping it just as he wished.

Craftsmanship is cited as the overall theme that ties so many amazing and unusual items together. Charles's aim was to preserve these wonderful objects from the past, before the industrial revolution effectively replaced them altogether. We thought it was a truly unique and magical place, and fully intend to visit again soon... as there was just so much to see.

Visit the Snowhill Manor website here

Images © Graham Powell of Obsessionistas

Saturday
Feb022013

Museum Materialities by Sandra H.Dudley (ed.)

Currently reading, here's the official summary (on rear cover):

"This is an innovative interdisciplinary book about objects and people within museums and galleries. It addresses fundamental issues of human sensory, emotional and aesthetic experience of objects. The chapters explore ways and contexts in which things and people mutually interact, and raise questions about how objects carry meaning and feeling, the distinctions between objects and persons, particular qualities of the museum as context for person-object engagements, and the active and embodied role of the museum visitor.

Museum Materialities is divided into three sections – Objects, Engagements and Interpretations – and includes a foreword by Susan Pearce and an afterword by Howard Morphy. It examines materiality and other perceptual and ontological qualities of objects themselves; embodied sensory and cognitive engagements – both personal and across a wider audience spread – with particular objects or object types in a museum or gallery setting; notions of aesthetics, affect and wellbeing in museum contexts; and creative and innovative artistic and museum practices that seek to illuminate or critique museum objects and interpretations.

Phenomenological and other approaches to embodied experience in an emphatically material world are current in a number of academic areas, most particularly strands of material culture studies within anthropology and cognate disciplines. Thus far, however, there has been no concerted application of this kind of approach to museum collections and interactions with them by museum visitors, curators, artists and researchers. Bringing together essays by scholars and practitioners from a wide disciplinary and international base, Museum Materialities seeks to make just such a contribution. In so doing it makes a valuable and original addition to the literature of both material culture studies and museum studies." 

Dudley S.H. (ed.) 2010 Museum Materialities - Objects, Engagements, Interpretations. Routledge

Sunday
Sep022012

Cabinets for the Curious by Ken Arnold

From a series of books titled Perspectives on Collecting by Ashgate; ‘Cabinets for the Curios’ reminds the reader of the practices and traditions that our museums evolved from. Over the centuries, narrative and functionality often lost out to the obsession with categorisation and ordering of collections. Another interesting insight is that the recent ‘de-intellectualisation’ of many British museums, through the intensive reliance on base level electronic interactions, might benefit from a review. Traditionally exhibitions were curated to encourage voyeuristic and reflective observation of historical artefacts – something to be reinstated. Indeed a lesson from the past itself would do no harm either, particularly from the successes of the original ‘cabinets of curiosities’ of the seventeenth century.

Arnold, K. (2006) Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums (Perspectives on Collecting). Ashgate

reviewed by Graham Powell of Obsessionistas

Friday
Apr202012

A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares 

A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares is a unique kind of book that aims to organize its subject matter into strict sense of order. No longer will students of furniture design be able to claim ignorance of what constitutes some of the defining characteristics (and differences) of key office chair design and indeed the reasoning behind their design decisions. Published earlier this year by Phaidon, the book aims to chart the evolution of the ‘humble’ office chair from it’s early beginnings of the 1840s to the present day.

Taxonomising by it’s nature is a very ‘male’ obsessive tendency… to sort and to categorize to attempt to find meaning. This book certainly conforms with this tradition through the obsessive desire to understand the office chair’s technical detailing and innovation. However it often omits the social evolution and wider context that accompanied and indeed may have influenced the designers of the time. It also claims to be the first book taxonomising an industrialized object (really – what about all those engineering books on types of ships, airplanes, cars, engines etc?). Maybe it is in the particular world of design publishing?

There are also no real suggestions or an attempt at a summary of where next for the office chair? Or (surprisingly) no mention of the implications of the encroachment of the office chair into the more recent environment of the home office or indeed by the  flexible worker hot-desking (i.e. owning or not ‘owning’ a specific seat).

Instead then, this book focuses on the evolution of, the cataloging of, the taxonomising of and finally the varying ergonomics of different office chair designs.  In the words of the author…"office chairs seemed an ideal subject because of their close relationship with the human body and their mechanical complexity."

Interviews with famous furniture designers are conducted to get the originator's perspective on key design decisions of respective chairs. This primary research is a welcome addition to ensure the obsession with taxonomising doesn't reduce the subject to dry uninspiring facts... something we strongly agree with here at Obsessionistas.

Whether it be swivel action, style, ergonomics or power-sitting, the office chair incorporates many sophisticated qualities that many other chairs just don’t consider. As a result it has become the ubiquitous ‘must-have’ design for virtually every modern day work environment.

All in all a great book for any chair-aholic/designer that agrees that ‘God is in the details’.

 

Olivares, J. (2011) A Taxonomy of Office Chairs. Phaidon

reviewed by Graham Powell of Obsessionistas

Sunday
Feb262012

Museums, Objects and Collections by Susan M. Pearce 

Although Susan Pearce, now Professor Emerita of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester (UK), wrote this influential book over twenty years ago, it continues to provide valuable insights for those who want to better understand our fascination of cultural representation through the collections of things.

This book was initially intended for those in curatorial practice who also believe in the crucial role of theory and the inseparability of them both. It aims to analyse the many ways in which meaning is created within museums and to 'recognise the unique significance of museums and collections in the European cultural tradition' - i.e. the formation of the modern world roughly between 1450 and 1950. It also suggests alternative directions to consider with the challenges that the Post-Modern era of subjectivity has brought with it.

This critical tradition, regarding the critical study of museums, is however relatively new (1970's+). Beforehand, most criticism was generally confined to each academic subject category with little socio-cultural analysis of the practice of displaying collections in purpose built buildings (museums).

In western culture thoughts on materiality can be traced right back to Plato, and since then collectors and museums have generally served to reinforce this ideology, with their focus being primarily on the appreciation of physical things for the purpose of understanding. In more recent times, this logic has also spread to traditionally less materialistic cultures, such as China, India and Africa.

The term Matter is derived from the female; Mater (p19). Mutter becomes Meter – or the dividing up (measurement) of the divine (male God). The inference being that things, from a western ideological perspective, are less important than spiritual illumination/resurrection and therefore materiality is seen as something to order, control, or even curb. As a result, constructing meaning (representation) or getting to the 'heart of the matter' is one-thing collections appear to have been continually trying to do to narrow the gap. Also interesting is the notion that as objects/collections are seen as specific signifiers, they in turn come to 'have a life of their own' and so give power to and have power over the collector. Objects therefore have the potential to act as a bridge between both this world and ‘other’ worlds when imbued with meaning and hyper-significance. For example souvenirs act as individual ‘bittersweet longings for a past which is seen as better and fuller than the difficult present’ (p72). Are then collections primarily assemblages of subjectively chosen (& then organized) souvenirs? Reminders to the collector themselves of who they have chosen to become?

The book offers an insightful range of reasons and methodologies through which people have attempted to understand objects and collections within museums. The ultimate aim is usually to better understand ourselves through representations of our histories. However, as stated in the summary of Meaning in History, Pearce acknowledges that "For the past is essentially unknowable, forever lost to us, and in museum displays its material traces are reconstructed into images of time past which have meaning only for the present, in which their genuinely intrinsic relationships to the past are used to authenticate a present purpose.' (p209)

Perhaps this desire to authenticate the present through a representation of the past reveals the inevitability of never really knowing or understanding ourselves, but is what perpetually drives us to try anyway. In part then by visiting museums we are driven by the futility of trying to come to terms with our inner confusions and wonders of our own existence, our relationships with others and ultimately our place in this world. Or as Pearce puts it 'Objects are therefore actors in the story, not just the reflection of action, and themselves have a role in creating that change which we call the process of history.' (p211). Or 'the object is inexhaustible, but it is this inexhaustibility which forces the viewer to his decisions. The viewing process is selective, and the potential object is richer than any of its realisations... In one sense it is relating the developing personality of the viewer and so acting as a kind of mirror; but at the same time the effect of the object is to modify or change the viewer, so that he is a slightly different person from the one he was before.' (p219).

Or putting it more concisely, objects can be seen primarily as ‘facilitators of ideas between people,’ (Powell 1997) and as such are laden with both objective and subjective (polysemantic) meanings and intentions. It is this that makes things so interesting and our relentless desire to see new 'curiosities' so rewarding. Museums being the custodians of officially recognized collections, curated by officially recognized professionals, have therefore become the ideal final destination for objects of 'worth'... a safe haven where (western) cultural ideas and values are preserved and endlessly re-presented to future generations in search of understanding.

Finally Pearce suggests that curators, even more than ever, need to consider new ways to convey meaning through their work, even when faced with the subjective nihilism of the poststructuralist/postmodern era we now find ourselves living in. A potential 'future' direction of utilizing museum collections to stimulate critical argument (remember this book was originally published in 1992) is something we should not forget in our modern fast paced world of endless distractions and Facebook likes.

Looking back with hindsight it can be seen that some ideas encouraging more subjective reflection have since occurred within the museum sector, and with some notable successes (consider newer practices of wider visitor engagement and involvement). Or as Pearce suggests 'Metaphorical activity offers a capacity for reinterpretation amongst ideas which have become objective property' (p263). Of course in 1992 we were only just hearing about radical new opportunities possible through the opening up of the World Wide Web. Alternative methods of sharing and communicating collections, along with alternative viewpoints, ideas and meaning (e.g. Obsessionistas) were still yet to be conceived. Also now possible is a return to the original intentions of the collectors themselves, along with their own subjective explanations as to how and why they put their collections together. Twenty years on then we do have a refreshing alternative/antidote to the objective sense making of generations of official cultural commentators, professionals and institutions.

 

Pearce, S. M. (1993) Museums, Objects and Collections. Smithsonian Institution Press

 

reviewed by Graham Powell of Obsessionistas