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Since I’ve been researching art in museum practice, I’ve begun to notice more and more artists working with collections. In a way this feels somewhat reassuring as there is obviously an interest in the field in which I am working. However, it also means that I need to consider my approach to collections carefully in order to ensure originality in my work. With that in mind I decided to visit some current exhibitions to see how artists were responding to museum objects.

The Paper Museum
The Paper Museum’ at Graves Gallery in Sheffield is one such exhibition. Artist Paul Evans produced a series of drawings based on Museums Sheffield’s collections of animal drawings, paintings and sculptures in response to a Leverhulme Trust funded residency with Cardiff Osteological Research Group. The title of his exhibition refers to another paper museum, The Museo Cartaceo, which was created by 17th Century scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo. In compiling his museum, dal Pozzo collected over 7000 watercolours, drawings and prints to create a visual encyclopedia of the range of human knowledge.

Rather than attempting to create a didactic exhibition, Evans took up the challenge to produce something more mythological and poetic and instead created an alphabet of drawings, or ‘Bestiary of Bones’. As Evans stated in the introduction to the exhibition: “Drawing has brought us closer to an understanding of the world through map-making and illustration, [but] imaginative drawing has helped us to maintain and deepen our sense of wonder at the natural world that we inhabit.”

Collaborating with poets
Evans was introduced to the poet A B Jackson through previously working with poets in conjunction with his drawing practice and they decided to collaborate on the Paper Museum project. Jackson described his working process as follows: “When Paul and I discussed how best to approach the writing of poems to accompany his A-Z drawings we agreed that any attempt to provide a summary explanation of the creature’s mythological story or cultural meaning  would be difficult; instead we  decided that the poems should be suggestive rather than straightforwardly descriptive, and I settled on a very strict form of four lines, each with four beats, and a rhyme scheme of ABAB. In addition, lines 1 and 2 run on together, while lines 3 and 4 are standalone sentences.

“The creative process began by looking at Paul’s drawings to get a sense of his take on that particular creature. So for example, his drawing of Jujak – the Korean name for ‘The Vermillion Bird’, a symbol from Chinese astronomy – was notable for being vermillion in colour. As a result, the poem focuses on the ancient habit of Chinese Emperors to eat vermillion in the belief that it would grant them immortality, not knowing that the colour was derived from mercury and highly toxic.”

Replicating the museum
The highly structured and formalised process of arranging the drawings according to an alphabetical narrative reflected the museum classification process perfectly, while the element of interpretation through text and image allowed space for the viewer’s imagination. The inclusion of additional drawings alongside the ‘bestiary’, such as that of a spade-toothed whale (which has never been seen alive) or the ‘Endling’ drawings of the last examples of a species, also explored ideas of the loss and conjuring that the collector enacts.

I was also interested in the use of the alphabet (another linguistic organising structure) to create a finite boundary of knowledge. Such structures were effective in the dawn of museums due to the possibility of collecting the world’s existing knowledge. However, increasingly, artists working in museums are exploring how the museum structure frames knowledge in order to create a consistent narrative. This naturally requires an editing process where many objects will not be included. Any critique of museum classification structures using those same processes should therefore attempt to show how these structures impact on which objects (or knowledge) is included.

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