Out and About: The Bronze Age in Colchester
Written by Jessica Juckes, International Training Programme Assistant
I recently visited an exhibition that I’d like to share with the ITP network, as it throws up some interesting ideas and questions about display and the aesthetics of the museum.
This was my first visit to contemporary gallery Firstsite, and my first visit to the city of Colchester, in Essex, southeast England. Colchester is the oldest recorded town in Britain and was the capital of Roman Britain (known as Camulodonum). It had Britain’s only Roman chariot-racing circus!
The Firstsite gallery is an impressive contemporary structure, but it also houses the Berryfield Mosaic (c. AD 150). The Roman mosaic was discovered in 1923 on the site where Firstsite is now located, and was incorporated into the gallery’s floor as a permanent feature, linking the art of past and present.
This context makes Firstsite a great location to present The Bronze Age c. 3500 BC – AD 2018, an exhibition that was created by contemporary commercial gallery Hauser & Wirth for the London version of the Frieze art fair in 2017. The exhibition was a collaboration between Hauser & Wirth and University of Cambridge Classics Professor Mary Beard (a celebrity of the Classics world in the UK and one of the presenters of the recent BBC series Civilisations). Hauser & Wirth’s mini-site for the exhibition, with installation shots from Frieze, videos, press and more, can be accessed here.
The exhibition cleverly presents bronze works by Hauser & Wirth-represented modern and contemporary artists (including Henry Moore and Louise Bourgeois) alongside bronze artefacts loaned from regional museums and private collections across the UK. Dotted around are bronze items purchased from eBay, which are cheekily inserted as pretend archaeological finds. The curatorial statement describes the exhibition as a ‘satirical museological presentation’: a ‘fictional Bronze Age presentation from a forgotten museum’, which ‘highlights the power of display’ and invites us ‘to ponder how the significance of an object can be dictated by context.’
The aesthetics of this purpose-built ‘forgotten museum’ are interesting: they play to the (British) imaginary of what a museum traditionally looks like. The Bronze Age is constructed as a museum-within-a-museum: temporary walls have been created and old doors added, so that you feel as if you are leaving Firstsite and the contemporary art world, and entering a different museum space.
It has been carpeted with old-fashioned carpet tiles, which frame the Berryfield Mosaic in the centre of the space. No detail has been left out: the air vents have fake mould and there is a layer of fake dust on the cabinets! There is even a mini shop with charity collection boxes and a community notice board, which is manned by a Firstsite volunteer.
Speaking to the Firstsite staff, I was very interested to hear more about visitors’ reactions to this presentation. The exhibition contains an interactive digital screen in its second room which gives access to the Hauser & Wirth Bronze Age mini-site, and can help visitors to understand the purpose of the exhibition. However, visitors who are perhaps not initiated into the ‘art world’ and do not pay careful attention to the interpretation may enter and leave without realising that the exhibition is a parody.
Something really interesting was that a Firstsite staff member told me that some visitors had breathed a sigh of relief when entering the space, saying that this was the kind of exhibition they wanted to see. It seems that some visitors were less satisfied with the contemporary art presentations within Firstsite and were happier to see the comfortingly familiar aesthetic of this ‘fake’ museum, with its eclectic and busy display and dense interpretation.
The Bronze Age project is also an interesting and rare collaboration between commercial and institutional, as well as contemporary and classical/archaeological.
Have you seen any exhibitions lately which offer new or innovative approaches to display? The ITP network would love to hear about them!