Week 73: 3rd – 9th February
Susan Pearce has previously stated that most examples of collecting show that “a collection is not a collection until someone thinks of it in those terms”. (Pearce, 1994, p.158) However, for individual objects to become a collection, there must first be a period of selection and classification. As Cardinal and Elsner summarise in their introduction to The Culture of Collecting: “Classification precedes collecting… Collecting is classification lived, experienced in three dimensions. The history of collecting is thus the narrative of how human beings have striven to accommodate, to appropriate, and to extend the taxonomies and systems of knowledge they have inherited.” (Cardinal and Elsner, 1994, 1-2)

Interpreting objects
The idea of the classification of artefacts therefore brings us back to the first section of essays, ‘Interpreting Objects’, in Pearce’s edited volume, ‘Interpreting Objects and Collections’. In understanding the ways in which objects can be classified to become part of a collection, it is useful to consider the frameworks by which objects are interpreted. These frameworks, usually referred to as ‘material culture theory’ have been developed over a period of time between the mid-nineteenth century and the present day, largely as a result of archeological research. (Pearce, 1994, p.2)

Methods of interpretation have changed dramatically throughout this period. As Miller recalls in his essay, ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’: “Social anthropology has seen a steady growth in the dominance of models derived from linguistics… [with] the emphasis in structuralism and post-structuralism… on ‘word’, ‘text’ and ‘discourse’.” (Miller, 1994, p.15) Thus, in 1977, Barthes identified that objects operate as part of a semiotic network, through reinterpreting Sassure’s language/speech divide, langue/parole, as signified/signifier. “For Barthes, these concrete performances or embodiments [parole]…have no necessary connection with the signified meaning which they carry… Together, the union of signified and signifier gives us a signe, that is the social construct which members of the group can recognize and understand”. (Pearce, 1994, 21) The relationship of objects to social and environmental factors therefore, helps us to decide how these objects might be classified, in the case of both contemporary and historical artefacts. (Miller, 1994, p.13)

Methodologies for interpretation
“Although art museums, historical societies, museums of history and technology, historic houses, open-air museums, and museums of ethnography, science, and even natural history, have long collected, studied, and exhibited the material of what has come to be called material culture, no comprehensive academic philosophy or discipline for the investigation of material culture has as yet been developed”. (Prown, 1982, p.1)

So begins Jules David Prown’s ‘Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture and Method’. Essays such as this and E.McClung Fleming’s ‘Artifact study: a proposed model’ from the Winterthur Portfolio, sparked renewed interest in developing new methodologies for analysing artefacts. One such attempt is documented in ‘Towards a material history methodology’ by R.Elliot et al., which followed the attempts of a graduate history seminar at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton to devise a new research model by adapting information from Fleming’s ‘Artifact Study’.

Process and model
Before developing the research model the group first had to find a workable methodology from the available social science disciplines.They decided to work with an archaeological model as it offered the best example of working directly with the object. (Elliot, 1994, p.109) From this they listed five core properties of the artefact to investigate: Material, Construction, Provenance, Function and Value. Each property was examined for evidence under three separate headings: Observable (through the sensory and empathic experience of the object), Comparative (comparing the artefact with similar objects), and Supplementary (through written/oral history or recorded images of the object). (Elliot, 1994, p.110-112)

Each of the properties were defined and a series of questions were drawn up in order to establish repeatable methods of investigation for each object. Questions ranged from the observable through to the interpretive, ie. ‘Did the materials used influence the object’s final form?’ to ‘What cultural values does it reveal?’ This methodical approach to interpreting objects allowed the group to determine how much information each object held, and provided a useful exercise in classification, which could be reapplied to further artefacts. (Elliot, 1994, p.117)


Week 72: 27th January – 2nd February
In developing my understanding of collections studies and the ways in which it might contribute towards my research, I decided to focus on the work of Susan M Pearce, Professor Emeritus of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, and her anthology, Interpreting Objects and Collections.

Separated into two sections of essays, the first section focuses on the ways in which objects are interpreted within museum collections, while the second considers the collection as a whole. For the purposes of continuity, I will first summarise the latter section in order to continue the discussion about the nature of collecting. The first section, relating more to the methodology of material culture and anthropology will be summarised in the following post.

Interpreting collections
Continuing on from Baurillard’s definition of collecting as distinct from accumulating or hoarding, Susan Pearce’s essay ‘The Urge to Collect’, catalogues a number of examples which quantify the act of collecting. Quoting Durost, the first definition listed differentiates between the value of an object being intrinsic or representational, the latter constituting an element of a collection. The second example by Alsop focuses on “the mentality of the collector” and the objects they choose to collect according to preferential categories. (Pearce, 1994, p.157)

Aristides’ example defines the collection as “an obsession organized”. This definition adds a possessive element to the formulaic and orderly structure of the collection, while Belk et al. suggest a much more considered, detached activity: “the selective, active, and longitudinal acquisition, possession and disposition of an interrelated set of differentiated objects that contribute to and derive extraordinary meaning from the entity that this set is perceived to constitute”. The determining factor in all of these examples, Pearce notes, is that the collection only becomes a collection after it is defined in those terms. This also sheds interesting light on her assertion that “many accumulations created by women fall outside the traditional view of what constitutes a collection”, suggesting that collections are more socially than materially constructed. (Pearce, 1994, pp.157-158)

Souvenirs, Fetishes and Systematics
Pearce further attempts to quantify these definitions by attributing each act to one of three modes of collecting: souvenir, fetish or systematic, in her essay ‘Collecting reconsidered’. The first of these, the souvenir, is associated with a person or their life history, and may also be categorised as ‘memorabilia’ or ‘personalia’. These objects, despite depicting the intimate details of a person’s experiences, are largely of little interest to the general public, unless the personality behind the collection is of particular note. (Pearce, 1994, p.195) Such a description may be applied in part to the Freud’s Sculpture exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in 2006, but this was as much in how the work was framed as any inherent sentiment on the part of Freud himself.

The second mode, referred to as fetishistic, is a “kind of obsessive collecting, in which the intention is to acquire more and more of the same kind of pieces, and in which the accumulation stops only with death, bankruptcy or a sudden shift of interest…” (Pearce, 1994, p.197) The term fetish, in this instance, suggests an object removed from its social context, but has its origins in anthropology as adapted from the Portuguese ‘feiticos’ meaning ‘made by man’, and ‘magically active’. According to Pearce, in fetishistic collecting, “powerful emotions are aroused by the objects which the objects seem to return, stimulating a need to gather more and more of the same kind.” The idea of the fetish was also appropriated in psychological and political investigation, through ideas of sexualisation and the commodity, respectively, adding a further dimension to this obsessive activity. (Pearce, 1994, pp.199-200)

The final mode of collecting might be described as the quintessential mode of museum display, that of systematic collection. This mode “depends upon principles of organization which are perceived to have external reality beyond the specific material under consideration, and which are held to derive from general principles… [which] form our ideas about the nature of the physical world and the nature of ourselves”. However, due to the fact that this method was developed as a process to create an organised and didactic public display, such a collection is therefore historically and culturally constructed, and so can only produce the subjective reality of the curator. (Pearce, 1994, p.201)


Week 71: 20th – 26th January
When discussing my artist book practice, I’ve been asked to consider why I prefer the context of a museum to display my work, rather than a library. Apart from thinking about the book as an object, I realised that the distinction, for me, was not so clear cut, and I needed to think more about the connections between libraries, museums and galleries.

Cultures of collecting
The similarities between these institutions are fundamentally related to to the nature of collecting and collections. The ways in which each fulfils drives to categorise, assimilate and organise the world, is how I understand my own practice, so I decided to read more about the psychology of collecting.

The book, The Cultures of Collecting, assembles a series of articles which trace “the psychology, history and theory of the compulsion to collect, focusing not just on the normative collections of the Western canon, but also on collections that reflect a fascination with the “Other” and the marginal.” Introducing the series, John Elsner and Roger Cardinal outline the procedures and desires inherent in creating a collection; the necessity of classification as a precedent for collecting, the history of collecting as a history of taste, and “the urge to erect a permanent and complete system against the destructiveness of time.” (eds. Cardinal, R and Elsner, J, 1994, pp. 1-4)

The system of collecting
In the first chapter, The System of Collecting, Baurillard sets out to determine the ontology of possession in relation to collecting:“Possession cannot apply to an implement, since the object I utilize always directs me back to the world. Rather it applies to that object once it is divested of its function and made relative to a subject… [these objects] constitute themselves as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together his world, his personal microcosm.” (Baurillard, 1994, p7)

He also stresses the ways in which collecting differs from accumulating, beginning with inferior stages such as stockpiling, through to the accumulation of identical objects, and finally “collecting proper”, the assembly of, and distinction between, objects of cultural value. In this case, the collection is also defined by what it lacks, the missing object signifying “our own death, symbolically transcended.” (Baurillard, 1994, pp.17-23)

The psychology of collecting
He continues to explore some of the more sinister aspects of psychoanalytic theory by suggesting how the possessed object may constitute the fear of symbolic castration (an argument which clearly disregards the possibility of collections by women): “…One is hardly inclined to lend another person one’s car, one’s pen, one’s wife, this is because these objects are, within the jealousy system, the narcissistic equivalents of oneself…” (Baurillard, 1994, p18)

However, if jealousy is one motivation for collecting, then there are many more, as detailed in Mieke Bal’s study of Susan M Pearce’s book ‘Museums, Objects and Collections’, in Chapter 5: Telling Objects: “…Pearce goes on to discuss as many as sixteen possible motivations… leisure, aesthetics, competition, risk, fantasy, a sense of community, prestige, domination, sensual gratification, sexual foreplay, desire to reframe objects, the pleasing rhythm of sameness and difference, ambition to achieve perfection, extending the self, reaffirming the body, producing gender-identity, achieving immortality.” (Bal, 1994, p103)

Fetishism and collecting
Although Pearce herself separates collecting into three categories: systematics, fetishism and souvenir collecting (Windsor, 1994, p50), Bal suggests that all her listed motivations can be subsumed under the narrative of fetishism, through cutting the object off from its original context in order to reconstitute its meaning with the use of three common tropes: “synecdoche, the figure where a part comes to stand for the whole from which it was taken; metonymy, where one thing stands for another adjacent to it in place, time or logic; and metaphor, where one thing stands for another on the basis of similarity…” (Bal, 1994, p106).

These examples focus particularly on the strong psychological reasons for the creation of collections, however, the historical nature of collecting always seems to point towards a need to possess and remove objects from the world. Therefore, has a new digital context introduced a more social element of sharing where image-objects proliferate?


Week 70: 13th – 19th January
In thinking about the nature of museums, I have focused on the ways in which artists have critiqued the (art) museum format. However, as my initial project focused on anthropological concerns, I felt it necessary to re-examine the relationship of the museum to other cultural objects.

Shields and Objects
The Pitt Rivers Museum (mentioned in week 62) is of particular interest due to its historicised nature, that is, in the way that it is presented as a 19th Century ethnographic collection, rather than according to a contemporary schema of museum curation. As it also hosts a programme for inviting and commissioning artists, the museum presents a useful case study in how contemporary artists respond to museum collections, as well as the history of anthropology.

Previously, the museum has also worked with the University of Kent to provide a website of interpretive and contextual information about the museum’s collection of shields from Australia, Africa and Asia. In addition, the site also contains extensive bibliographies and essays about the history of anthropology, as detailed below.

The function of the museum
The museum as a didactic format for the study of natural and man-made objects has long been established. However, in the second half of the twentieth century, changes in museum policy and ethics created different ways of thinking about the museum format, particularly around collecting and displaying objects from field studies, as evidenced in the extract provided from Stocking’s ‘Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture’.

As the text states: “William Sturtevant found in 1969 that although the timing and duration of the peak of museum anthropology had come at different times in England, France, Germany, and the United States, the general trend after 1930 had been uniformly down, reaching a low point in the United States in the 1960s … (Sturtevant, 1969: 626). At the last point in history when it would be possible to collect and document ‘hand-made traditional artefacts’, few field ethnographers were still interested in collecting … In a context where ‘at least 90% of museum ethnological specimens (had probably) never been studied’ at all, the research function of museums had atrophied, and the professional status of curators drastically declined.”

Museums, Objects and Representation
The challenges of displaying ethnographic objects in a museum environment are also discussed in the essays ‘Behind the Scenes: Museums and Selective Criticism’ by Brian Durrans, Oral Tradition and Material Culture: Multiplying Meaning of ‘Words’ and ‘Things’ by Julie Cruikshank, and Museums, Tourism and the Devil at Burlington Gardens by Tristan Platt.

Durrans discusses the politics of representation and how museums can be seen as complicit in the oppression of the cultures that they aim to represent. His essay is centred around questions raised in the book ‘Exhibiting Cultures’, (eds. Karp and Lavine, 1991), which was based on a conference of the same name. These questions include the role that the author’s subjectivity plays in creating and disseminating anthropological knowledge and the ways in which museums and curators have tried to engage audiences within these processes, specifically in the privileging of exhibitions over the other work of the museum, such as research, documenting, collecting, and publishing.

Words as things
Cruikshank also discusses the difficulties of using objects to describe culture, particularly in the case of collecting oral traditions as artefacts, in the form of documents, tapes and video. This also intersects with new ways of thinking about ethnographic writing. She explains: “Native oral traditions have roots in procedure and methods different from written literary texts. Increasingly, indigenous writers are experimenting with literary forms, redefining ethnographic authority on their own terms and challenging images of their cultures presented by non-Western writers, film-makers and anthropologists”.

Finally, Platt discusses the ‘Bolivian Worlds’ exhibition, and its glaring omissions in relation to the effects of Western market Capitalism on the region. He also suggests other potential interpretive strategies: “An exhibition plunged in near-darkness, carefully lit, and with adjoining ‘windows’ on specific topics… Visitors could even have been offered miners’ helmets and lamps on entry…”. This last observation in particular, resonates with the ways in which I have previously grouped objects in curatorial practice, which has made me consider whether I have been thinking of artwork as interpretation all along.


My interest in the work of museums, and the ways in which contemporary art can interact with and signify museum practice, has led me to investigate the use of the vitrine as a mode of exhibiting artworks. The term vitrine refers to a glass case made for housing a collection of selected objects to create a visual display. Although I am primarily interested in the tactile and relational aspects of artworks, the exploration of the vitrine as a vehicle for the organisation of related objects is an area which I feel could intersect with my practice.

Sculpture and the Vitrine
As John Welchman describes in the introduction to Sculpture and the Vitrine, “The vitrine serves (with increasing critical reflexivity) as a general term governing the re-zoning of such objects as they enter into collections, whether private or public, and are readied for display. In this condition the vitrine is, first and foremost, a marker of difference. It separates the objects and things it contains from their contexts, puts them into relation with other objects, alike and dissimilar, and, above all, perhaps, serves to reinforce both the intrinsic and aesthetic values of what it displays”. (Welchman, 2013, p.2)

He goes on to suggest four potential areas for consideration between sculpture and the vitrine, and the ways in which these instances have influenced art practice since the beginning of the twentieth century. The four examples include the pre-modern reliquary, the Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Curiosity, the shop front or window display, and finally the fourth thematic area which is “marked by a loose genealogy of work that questions the very nature of the transparency, commodification, entrapment, and speciminization underwriting the viewing model of the vitrine” (Welchman, 2013, p.10).

Institutional Critique
These examples include a mixture of theoretical and physical works critiquing the nature of collecting and viewing artworks within the frame of the vitrine, and by extension, the museum. Such concerns led to the development, in the 1960s and 70s, of an exploration of the nature of the museum, its connections, and politics, known as Institutional Critique. (Welchman, 2013, pp. 3-4)

Institutional critique aimed to revisit the claims of Enlightenment philosophy which promised “the production of public exchange, of a public sphere, of a public subject”. As such, artists who felt that museums were not fulfilling these commitments aimed to disrupt relations within the museum structure through acts of negation, disruption, parody and written manifestos. Artists whose work coincided with these ways of working included Daniel Buren, Eduardo Favrio, Julio Le Parc, Enzo Mari, Marcel Broodthaers, Robert Smithson, and others, and incorporated practices spanning the globe in cities including Buenos Aires, Rosario, Paris, Warsaw and New York. (Alberro and Stimson, 2009, pp. 3-5)

The politics of representation, collection and display continued to feature within the art practices of 1980s postmodernism in the works of Barbara Kruger, Mark Dion and Orshi Drozdik, and again in the 1990s with works such as Cornelia Parker’s ‘The Maybe’, at the Serpentine Gallery, which displayed 36 cabinets of historical memorabilia, including a sleeping Tilda Swinton. (Welchman, 2013, pp. 4,16)

Making vitrines
This array of historical practice relating to the use of the vitrine enables me to contextualise my work within a fine art tradition. However, this also creates further questions about how I might attempt to address these issues differently. Furthermore, the use of the vitrine, established as it is within an Enlightenment tradition of separating and recontextualising items according to museum classification schemas, also disrupts previous ideas of incorporating non-modern and networked ways of thinking into my project.

Despite this, I feel that these questions can be addressed through a new investigation of the vitrine through integrating it into the the format of the work, as opposed to creating the work and its display case separately. This practice can also be equated with a ‘whole book philosophy’ in artists’ book practice, where the format and the content of the work are developed simultaneously, both complimenting and reinforcing the message of the work.

Further reading:
Institutional Critique: An anthology of Artists’ Writings
The Museum Establishment and Contemporary Art: The Politics of Artistic Display in France after 1968