Kelham Island Museum: Museum of Tools —

Kelham Island Museum is part of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, which gives an idea of the sort of thing going on inside this old iron foundry. I was expecting general local history, cutlery, coffee pots etc. but hadn’t appreciated that those skills also meant that Sheffield made a lot of engineering and hand tools too.

As such, the museum is also host to the extraordinary Hawley Collection. A remarkable assortment of tools and works in progress that show how the tools were made. This means that the tools that made the tools are also presented - leading to a wonderful sort of meta exhibit.

 

The really great thing is that it’s a personal collection turned institutional, and where you’d expect more gaps, and more bias you’re met with sheer quantity of artefacts and a really well presented, coherent exhibit. Both the character of the founder, Ken, and the group of volunteers that man the ‘research room’, (biscuits and enthusiastic tool chat were more noticeable) are firmly felt in the gallery.

 

Elsewhere in the museum is the massive River Don Engine that came to the museum straight from the factory floor where it had been used to make armour plating for nuclear power stations.

 

I also really appreciate any museum that incorporates it’s archives and restoration work into it’s displays – It gives a sense of continuation, activity, and relevance.

 

Representing Replicas — The Cast Courts —

I was thrilled to discover the V&A Plaster Cast Courts for the first time recently. Tucked to the side of the museum, and away from the weekend crowds, the Courts house plaster copies of famous architecture and sculpture from across world. The scale of the rooms and the gigantic Trajan Column that dominates them is the first thing to be impressed by (even more so when you realise that they should be stacked on top of each other to achieve their original height). The spectacle of seeing such impressive architecture inside another building, framed and lit in the context of the museum is incredible. 

 

The sheer randomness of the collection is intoxicating. The courts have Frankenstein displays where the front of a cathedral from Santiago de Compostella has doors inset from Germany from 200 years earlier. Old mixes with new and everything from all over the world is together in one excessive architectural Disneyland. 

 

The really interesting thing around the casts is of course that they aren’t real. That is to say that they aren’t the original objects. They are facsimiles of much coveted masterpieces of art and architecture from throughout the ages. But the discussion around an objects authenticity and it’s subsequent relevance to scholarly or artistic study is only part of my fascination. In 2014, Room 46B was renovated, (the courts having originating in 1873), and it’s in this more modern world that this odd collection exists now. A modern museum setting that is constantly reassessing the usefulness and quality of facsimiles in all their forms – from digital print outs and online representations, to VR experiences and 3D-printed stand ins. What is and isn’t valid as an accessioned artefact seems to be as much up for grabs as ever. 

Here are some links about the history of the Cast Courts:
I never knew the V&A was originally the Museum of Manufactures! The History of the Courts. Room 46A. Room 46B.

 

Alice Anderson at the Wellcome Collection —

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Things wrapped in copper thread. It’s a deceptively simple artistic process but the result is stunning. Helped along by the fantastic lighting design the ideas of concealment, repetition, abstraction, scale, and familiarity changed as you walked through the space and the pieces caught the light differently – interactivity at it’s simplest and effective. The images here show the range of scales the work takes, ‘Geometries 64 Shapes’, a collection of small objects on a wall, and ‘Ropes’, a 250m long installation that you could get inside and walk around. 

 
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I really liked how the thread brought the objects back to a collection of simple shapes, with what looked like dull planes and then as you moved they shimmered with texture. The original objects were physically there but, like a palimpsest, were ghosted and built on top of when given their copper lustre. My favourite piece wasn’t on a postcard: ‘Jars’ from Anderson’s site is below. Wellcome Collection link here.

 

Museums Showoff —

At the March Museums Showoff the stand out speakers for me were Sharon Robinson, Collection Care and Textile Conservation Manager at the Museum of London, and Hannah Bishop, Development Coordinator at the Horniman Museum.

Sharon was talking about toxic collections and what to watch out for. The stand out thing for me was the rating of radioactive objects – in the past if you wanted something to fluoresce the coating was radioactive, so lots of war time things which needed to be read or looked at in the dark are now hazardous items. The standard for measuring these small radiations is to look up the equivalent ‘effective’ dose in bananas. The Banana Equivalent Dose (BED) takes the fact that the fruit contains a quantity of naturally occurring potassium which is radioactive. Thus one can work out that an antique compact is the equivalent of eating 4 bananas and so probably OK to handle. More details here and here.

Hannah spoke about her project to crowd fund an art exhibition at the Horniman of paintings of taxidermy in-situ in the museum’s stores. This seems a really progressive and novel way to engage with an audience and create exhibitions which people want to see. In this time of public cuts, new ways of generating money like this are going to be necessary and prominent. What other existing funding models or cash making systems could be applied to the arts and heritage sector? Exhibition shares? eBay? Google ads?