New Museums and the making of culture by Kylie Message 

What is a museum for? Pre economic meltdown, the West was preoccupied with cultural representation and the celebration of newness. The commissioning and building of new museums were both instrumental and reflective of the notion of culture as being the ‘industry’ to positively encourage - leading to wealth creation, tourism, economic growth etc. Oh how things have changed since those days of easy money.

Kylie Message’s book New Museums - and the making of culture was published near to the climax of the cultural party season (2006) and aimed to decode what was going on - whilst everyone was still dancing. An academic book through and through, post-modern theories from the likes of Barthes, Baudrillard, Jameson et al are utilized to help reveal the deeper insights of the times. The search for meaning through the analysis of the buildings themselves, rather than their contents and collections, reveals much about contemporary notions of understanding the self in a global cultural marketplace.

A variety of museums are therefore utilized to illustrate recent ideas and meaning. Whether it be a cultural ‘apologist’ type museum in the form of National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, the ‘revamped’ Museum of Modern Art in New York, or the ‘spectacle’ Museo Guggenheim in Bilbao, the actual building itself is (was) the message.

Each iconic architectural project reflected our recent postmodern obsession with the desire to celebrate the new, rather than previous searches for the you (i.e. attempts at understanding ourselves through the artefacts contained within the buildings themselves). Essentially the renaissance project’s notion of illumination through modernity was ultimately subsumed by subsequent postmodern simulations of our sense of self. As such, the new museum it seemed, had ‘evolved’ from the function of exhibiting collections as its raison d'être and instead aimed at becoming a cultural centre, signifying diversity over singularity. Their primary focus now was to blatantly act as a cultural signifier for the host city and nation. Multiculturalism and cultural diversity then, is something Message concluded as being the potential next new thing, and as such a way out of 'the now passé trend for postmodernity' (p202).

Ironic perhaps, that only 2 years after this book was published, the economic collapse of the West turned everything upside down and an alternative to the new (no money) has taken the shine off all those inclusive museums of the naughties. These days those not-so-new iconic buildings by celebrity ‘starchitects’ seem oh so passé, representative of a time when (fake) money was abundant, before we had to pay it all back. Already then, many of these buildings, as reflectors of cultural identity, appear to have consumed themselves (and their ideologies) in a fitting tribute to postmodern irony.

Perhaps now it falls on another medium, like the internet, to help us construct our ideas of sense of personal self, breathing new life (and meaning) back into the act of collecting in yet another new era?


Message, K. (2006) New Museums and the Making of Culture. Berg

Review by Graham Powell of Obsessionistas


Museum of Childhood (Wales, UK) 

Whilst on our recent holiday in Wales we dropped in to see Paul and Hilary Kennelly at their Museum of Childhood in Llangeler, South Wales (UK). Located in 3 large converted barns, their vast collection of a very diverse range of toys are housed in their ‘Welsh Gallery’ (including toys made in Wales), a ‘Gallery of Time’ (toys from every decade), a ‘Transports of Delight’ room (all forms of transport and an old school room), ‘Llangeler Junction’ (model train section) and a ‘Film and TV gallery’ (containing hundreds of classic TV favourites).

Paul and Hilary have collected toys and childhood memorabilia for most of their lives and even ran a toy shop for many years in the midlands. As a result of their lifelong fascination their collection has grown over the years to cover most aspects of childhood. With the help of their friend and partner Vic Davey, who himself collects circus toys and post-war North-east London toys, they have painstakingly transformed their farm and it’s out-buildings into a rather impressive museum complete with a toy shop and tea rooms.

Whilst chatting, Paul also mentioned to us that he had a very large collection of toy guns that he was in the process of documenting, whilst Hilary also has a fascination for the wide variety of hand crafted Welsh love spoon designs and has amassed a vast collection too (naturally!). We therefore hope to be to return again at the end of the year to feature these 2 particular collections in our collections section. In the meantime though, I think you’ll agree, there is more than enough to feast the eyes on, even with this small selection of images we took!

More information is available from their comprehensive website here 

All images © of Obsessionistas


Collecting in a Consumer Society by Russell Belk 

Although published in the mid 1990’s, Belk’s book still has many insights and reminders for our current era. Much still rings true concerning current collecting situations, particularly regarding institutional collections and their (over) reliance on corporate sponsorship which ultimately has an overbearing influence on what and how contemporary museums exhibit.

Belk charts how the failure of sumptuary laws throughout history, and their futile attempts to curb excessive consumption, resulted in the desire for individual expression to win through (at least whenever humanly possible). Previously the church and/or state imposed control through the encouragement of ‘envy avoidance’. However, the birth of science and the subsequent rise of the commodity driven marketplace inevitably gave way to our ‘envy provocation’ lifestyles. It is in this light that modern collecting is presented; as an extreme extension of consumerism. One that has the tendency to be both parodied and celebrated by society at the same time. It is also this paradox that helps maintain our continual intrigue with collectors and their collections, whether individual or institutional. Just as the early cabinets of curiosities from the sixteenth century helped the gentility express their new learned status, so too did museums become embodiments of their culture’s core values. From this perspective then, the inevitable evolution of our ‘cathedrals of culture’ has seen their tea-rooms morphing into restaurants, gift shops into distributed networks (with merchandise also available online and in high street stores) and visitors into needy attention deficient customers. In this sense then Belk’s insights have not only been proven correct, but amplified even further, as the ‘collusion’ between museums and the modern corporate world has blurred into a fuzzy haze of cultural advertainment.

On the flipside though, another key change has occurred since the book was written (in 1995); that of the proliferation and take up of the internet. The web has allowed the individual collector to better share their personally constructed (material) realities with a global audience. In effect, like many parts of modern life, technology has ultimately empowered them. It has facilitated their (collection) coming out of the closet (or garden shed) for them to be judged as either “heroic collectors” or “worrying addicts”, as Belk refers to them. That decision is for you to decide.

Belk, R. Collecting in a Consumer Society. Routledge (1995)

Book reviewed by Graham Powell (of Obsessionistas)


The Tin Shed Experience: 1940’s museum

Last week we went to visit the Tin Shed Experience, a new independent museum that opened only 6 weeks ago.

Situated on the beautiful and dramatic south Wales coast (UK), Laugharne is well known for it’s castle and spectacular views, being the home of poet Dylan Thomas (where he wrote many of his famous works) and more recently the Laugharne Weekend (the music and literature festival held every April). Now the town has its very own museum to add to the list of good reasons to visit. As well as the sizeable tin ‘shed’ itself (garage), the site also accommodates a typical Welsh tin shed and a real tin Anderson air raid shelter at the rear of the main exhibition space. Alongside the air aid shelter is a victory garden to show how much needed vegetables were grown at the time. Another large shed houses many (as yet) unseen 1940’s ‘treasures’ – soon to be displayed to the public.

The Tin Shed Experience was set up by Seimon Pugh-Jones and Andrew Isaacs, with lots of help from family and friends and additional support from local business and Welsh Government.

The main exhibition space was originally built in 1933 by Andrew’s father out of second-hand tin sheets bought from Llanelli. It was originally used as a garage and then during the Second World War it was utilised by the Ministry of Defence as a place to repair many of their vehicles that were based down in Pendine. “Although primarily a museum we also intend to utilise the building and the adjoining large war memorial hall for dances, amateur dramatics, period dress photo shoots, music video shoots and also as a gallery… we want it to be a bohemian and odd little venue” said Andy.

Seimon’s contribution is his impressive collection of wartime memorabilia along with his fascination with community life that existed during the war years. The collection spans a wide range of objects from the 1940’s (and even the 1930’s), from domestic items and costumes, cameras, uniforms, weapons, tools and even vehicles. Perhaps not surprisingly, as Seimon is a successful cameraman and photographer, it was the photographic equipment and clockwork movie cameras that we were most impressed with. His incredibly authentic images and the film footage made with the old equipment have even been used by Steven Spielberg.

The opening display also celebrates both objects and TV/film successes of all things D-day and home front. It includes props and memorabilia from 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Band of Brothers' (that Seimon has worked extensively on). More exhibits and memorabilia are being added daily and the displays will change on a regular basis.

Suffice to say we were really impressed with the quality and dedication that Seimon and Andy had put into the whole project. Their very friendly welcome and obvious enthusiasm for the collection, their fabulous buildings and even the supporting 1940’s dance events was boundless… so just the sort of thing we love to feature here on Obsessionistas!

To keep abreast of their great projects and events visit the Tin Shed Experience website here 

Images copyright of Obsessionistas 2011


Sir John Soane’s Museum (London)

Last week I went to Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, a place I’ve been meaning to visit for a long time, and now having been there I am wondering why I never went sooner. Imagine if you can, being teleported back to early 1800’s Britain and visiting a learned gentleman’s house full to bursting with architectural and fine art grand tour treasures that have been meticulously arranged for your delectation and education. Indeed this was and remains the primary purpose of the home of Sir John, he essentially designed and rebuilt much of it as a live-in personal museum - reflecting both his passion for collecting and his working life. Even before stepping inside, you know this going to be a special place… the Portland stone neo-classical façade he added in 1812 is a rather a give-away for a start!

Sir John Soane, the son of a bricklayer, rose from humble beginnings to become London's great Regency architect whose achievements were (amongst others) the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery. He was even made Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, a post that he held until his death. He was also an avid and idiosyncratic collector of art and antiquities and as such arranged his house to share his obsessional interests with others.

Located in the tranquil metropolitan ‘oasis’ of Lincolns Inn Fields (numbers 12 to 14), there are not many small collections in the world that can rival this museum for both quality and eclecticism. The house is crammed full of so many architectural samples and antiquities as well as some rather famous artworks too, it’s hard to know where to begin.

After passing through the tastefully decorated main rooms you enter the 'Colonnade' and 'Dome' areas clad from floor to ceiling with architectural curiosities. A view of the Crypt containing an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus of King Seti (1303-1290 BC) below is a taste of more that awaits in the basement below. You then ‘squeeze’ through a doorway into the small Picture Room, constructed on the site of the stable-yard of No.14. Holding about 10 people at a time, the room houses more than one hundred pictures in total. It does this with the aid of special ‘walls’ that are in fact huge hinged panels that open out to reveal even more paintings, allowing three times as many artworks to be displayed than would normally be accommodated. Amongst the many exquisite pictures are those by Canaletto and Hogarth, as well as many beautifully executed architectural drawings and paintings. All this in a room the size of a typical bedroom – unbelievable!

Up the curved staircase, the first floor drawing rooms offer a light and airy feel to the house, where Mrs Soane would have entertained their guests. Views out across Lincoln’s Inn Fields also remind the visitor of Sir John Soane’s position in society. The museum is open free to all visitors, thanks to Sir John's foresight and generosity, as he left both the house and the collections within to the public after his death in 1837. He had previously ensured that an act of parliament was passed (in 1833) to ensure it would be kept ‘as nearly as possible in the state in which I shall leave it’.

Indeed the atmosphere and wonderment of the whole museum is one that you are unlikely to ever forget, let alone the treasures witnessed inside. My advice then... don’t leave it as long as I did to visit this amazing place!

More information about Sir John Soane's Museum is available from their official website here