Objects and icebergs

As a starting point for my initial reading and with specific recommendations from Chris Whitehead and my supervisory team I’ve begun to explore some of the literature around museums and ‘collecting theory’.

Material I’ve read or dipped into so far over the last two weeks includes: Susan Pearce’s book ‘Museums, objects and collections’ (1992) and her short piece ‘Collections and collecting’ in ‘Museums and the Future of Collecting’ (Knell, 2004); also Martin Wickham’s chapter ‘Ranking collections’ in the same book; and Samuel Alberti’s article ‘Objects and the Museum’ from the journal Isis (2005).

The following are some notes on my initial reactions and thoughts about how some of the concepts I’ve discovered here might relate to or help guide my future research around public art collections. (Note to readers: Please remember that this is only my fourth week on my new ‘PhD research job’, so these are very early thoughts. I’m bound to be returning to and reworking these notes, and perhaps discarding them too, as my research progresses.) Inevitably at this stage my notes are mainly questions.

Models for object study

Included as an appendix within Pearce’s (1992) book are  six alternative or overlapping diagrammatic models for analysing or interpreting museum objects as a stimulus or guide for future student study.  Pearce’s own model (1986) used with students at Leicester University sets out 8 levels for gathering information about an object: 1. Material – construction. 2. Material – design. 3. Material – character. 4. History – original and subsequent. 5. Environment – context. 6. Environment – location. 7. Significance. 8. Interpretation – social role. How far might all or any of these apply to a public art work? What might a new bespoke model for analysing public art work look like? Do any particular study models for interpreting and collecting data on public art exist already? How contemporary or flexible are these? Should designing a new model for public art works be a specific objective of my research?

The ‘iceberg’ view

This is Pearce’s 2004 metaphor of the heritage collection as an “iceberg” – 1/10 visible object that can be measured, compared, photographed, exhibited, but 9/10ths is below the water, invisible, the “dark side” of the collection, much more difficult to analyse or display. The stress here is on the people, the characters who have created or assembled the collection. Pearce assets that both elements should be equally recognised in the study  and understanding of meaning making within a collection – “…collections, like icebergs, inhabit both elements and the end result is an intrinsic whole, which has followed its own growth pattern and taken its characteristic shape whatever that may have turned out to be.” (Pearce, 2004, p.49) I rather like this image – should I be looking at the evolution of public art in the city in terms of a distinctive “growth pattern”?

Cultural biographies

This is Alberti’s argument for the exploration of objects as living entities. Things that can be studied in terms of their individual “careers”, their “key moments” or changing status and value in their journey from “acquisition to arrangement and viewing” within a collection and the accumulated “web” of collectors, processes and exchanges that have contributed to this. It’s an appealing viewpoint I think and an attractive way of writing about art works. Could you describe a public art work and its processes in this way? From commissioning, through creation, fabrication, installation, and continuing but changing public presence? What would this look like in terms of a temporary rather than a permanently sited work?

Ranking objects

The association of a tank museum with a public art collection is not perhaps an obvious one to make, but I thought that Wickham’s practical and “rational” approach to ranking or “grading” objects within a collection might offer an interesting tool for categorising public art works in the city. The mathematical “weighting” model takes things a bit too far for me but the key processes he suggests for designing such a system certainly seem valid for my study. Could I work collaboratively with other public art professionals to devise a similar list in grading works in the NewcastleGateshead public art collection? Is something similar already in use perhaps by local authority officers or company asset managers in relation to their own commissioned works?

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