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Tag Archives: museums

Vampire killing at the Police Museum

Sometimes a small focused museum can be a wonderful thing, at other times, not. The Melbourne’s Police Museum is a small museum on the mezzanine level of the World Trade Centre on Flinders Street. You probably didn’t know that Melbourne had a police museum and this is possibly intentional as the museum, and the gift shop, are really for members of the force only, except that it open to everyone with a gold coin donation.

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Caricature of Sir Thomas Blamey by Leonard Frank Reynolds 1926

Aside from one suit of armour from the Kelly gang, the managed carcass of the car from the Russell Street bombings is the centrepiece of the museum. When I visited there was a temporary exhibition about members of the force who died in World War One which tells more about Australian nationalism than policing. These memorials to dead members of the force gets in the way of any other narratives that the museum could present. There is no display showing the development of handcuffs, uniforms or police radios. Technology, such as bomb disposal is presented in isolation rather than as part of a progression. This is because conservative history and museums are about memorialising the past rather than examining or explaining developments.

The Police Museum acknowledges that its former Chief Commissioner Blamey was a fascist in displaying a caricature of him. However, there is no examination on how that effected the Victoria Police (whose motto of ‘uphold the right’ has to be viewed differently in light of this association).

The purpose of the museum can be summed up by the strangest of all the museum’s exhibits is a vampire killing kit. Vampire killing kits are a thing and this isn’t a great version. They are about as real as religious relics, almost as common and like many religious relics vampire killing kits are confections concocted out of antiques. The kit contributes nothing to anyone’s knowledge of the police. The simple reason that it is on display in the Police Museum is that it is a curiosity that the police posses after confiscating it from a criminal.

The museum is hardly worth visiting but I did as part of my research into Melbourne’s art and crime. I was disappointed because I learnt almost nothing from the my visit, however, in examining my disappointment I have learnt the difference between a conservative and a progressive museum. Conservative museums are about memorials rather than explanation, events rather than developments, and satisfying curiosity rather than gaining knowledge. And the police museum is a very conservative museum.

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Dada’s Success and Failure

I didn’t expect to see a painting by the Spanish Dadaist, Francis Picabia at the Art Gallery of Ontario but there it was; not from his Dada days but from the 1940s, complete with a couple of palm trees. It is like finding out that a punk band, like The Mekons have become a country/folk music group, which they have.

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Jonathan Jones, The Guardian regular art critic, amongst others, can’t understand this scenario and complains that “a tiny but brilliantly subversive protest movement has become the common currency of big-money, mass-audience art – Dada’s founders would feel sick.

No indication that Picabia was feeling sick, more like a holiday in the sun.

Of course, Mr Jones Dada has become mainstream. Wasn’t that always the intention of the Dada revolutionary council of Berlin? Wasn’t that the point of disseminating the information about Dada to the world? Why the publications, the lecture tours, the exhibitions, the records if it wasn’t to get the idea out there.

Every revolution that is completed becomes the establishment; every successful revolt permanently change the system. That is the process of history. It is not a betrayal of the American War of Independence, or other revolts and revolutions, to have its relics in a museum. But if you had the right sneer in your voice you could make it sound like it.

Would you, Mr Jones, argue that Dada was a success if they were being thrown out or sold in flea markets?

It is illogical to suggest that current ownership of Dada art and relics, or anything else, implies anything about its success or failure in anything other than being owned. The collections of museums, galleries and libraries are not a proof of the objects collected success or failure.

Does every utopian movement have to continue in an eternal purity of process in the same way that the church doesn’t in order not to be “trivialised or misappropriated”?

Should we rather not be celebrating the triumph of these nihilistic bolsheviks who made the contemporary art world? Where is the big Dada parade, with the figure of death in the lead and the oompah band bring up the end? A world where art is free to be anything. A world where in primary schools and kindergartens around the world children are taught the Dada art techniques like collage. Are little children’s art “trivial” enough for you, Mr Jones?

Sure we have all moved on and what was yesterday’s rebellion has now become a museum piece, we no longer wear monocles and ransom note typography is old fashioned.

Sure the Dadaist desire to destroy culture has been converted to a desire to make art that is as boring as life but nobody stole Dada. There are no unauthorised users of an open system, you can’t misappropriate nonsense, you can’t misappropriate nothing.

Sure, Dada failed to end the war, and it has been the same imperialist war on and off for the last century, but who hasn’t failed to do that?

Meanwhile, a century later, the current rebellion against culture is, of course, not Dada. The current rebellion is hardly recognised, invisible, underground and unthinkable.


Gustave Moreau Museum

Every time I have visited Paris (all 3 times in my entire life) I have visited this small museum, a favourite of the French Surrealists, the home and studio of Gustave Moreau. Visiting the museum is a great experience and an education for any painter. The Surrealists were the first to recommend the museum but their advice wasn’t popular. When I first visited in the winter of 1984, there were prostitutes working the street and I was the only visitor at the museum. But now the area is more sedate and the museum is even crowded with groups of art students.

Moreau’s symbolist paintings may be less out of fashion now but his fantastic visions of Biblical and classical scenes are still strange. His paintings are bejewelled, ornate, detailed and full of strange symbolist psychological overtones. For this reason his paintings are sometimes included in books of fantastic art but Moreau is a conventional late 19th century painter, a professor at the Paris’ École des Beaux Arts, who lived a comfortable bourgeois life.

In his formal parlour, located underneath the two floors of studio. There is his own art collection, works by Tournour, Burne-Jones, Berchere, along with a portrait of Moreau by Degas. There is also his collection of butterflies, tiger cowrie shells, stuffed birds, a few books, medals and his personal effects. The clutter and extravagance of late 19th Century taste. You can even use his neo-classical toilet with pull-chain to flush; the original ceramic bowl and hand basin are still functional. It is a unique toilet experience.

Toilet at Gustave Moreau Museum

Handbasin at the Gustave Moreau Museum

The studio is hung salon style full of finished and unfinished paintings. It shows every stage of the development of his paintings. You can follow the development of paintings from plaster casts and preparatory drawings, through the rough studies, clay or wax models to sketch figures from, half finished and on to the finished full sized paintings of the same composition. I am particularly interested in his underpaintings that are often wildly different in technique from the carefully finished work.

unfinished painting by Gustave Moreau

To visit the studio is an education in 19th century painting techniques. His importance as a teacher continues after his death in this museum; during his lifetime he taught at the École des Beaux-Arts.

In many it is clear that Moreau starts his paintings on canvas onto which he draw the outline in charcoal or pencil. He then adds the basic colours of the underpainting in a bold manner, although light areas remain untouched to allow the white gesso to reflect light back through the semi-transparent oils. After this he adds his black line drawing, or a white line if the background is very dark, fills in colours and glazes, working from the background to the foreground. However his technique varies between detailed classical colouring in of ink underpainting to loose impressionist brush and palette knife work. In these variety of techniques there are the beginnings of all kinds of modern figurative techniques. It is worth considering that his most famous students were Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault.

There is so much to see in this small museum that it would take days to see all the drawings, to take in the meaning of huge clutter of objects, to absorb the painting techniques. It is part of rare type of art gallery that is the work of one person: in London the equivalent is the Sir John Soane’s Museum (amazing architectural ideas), in Milan the Fondazione Artistica Poldi-Pezzoli (with collections of art, lace, watches and more) and in Dijon the Musée Magnin (home of a family of art collectors). These former residences show art in a more intimate manner, surrounded by period furniture and other collections. They show a particular tastes and interests and not the work of curatorial committees. They may not contain the most famous works of art in Europe but they are amongst my favourite museums.


The Museum of Electrical Philosophy

The Nicholas Building is the home to a lot of artists from the late Vali Myers (1930-2003) to the very much alive Stephen Giblett. They have their studios and exhibition spaces in the rooms of the Nicholas Building. It is also the home of Collected Works bookstore, the best bookshop for quality literature in Melbourne, along with the Victorian Writers Centre and other interesting shops. It is a wonderful old building that is well worth a visit itself, the mail cute in the stairwell and the antique elevators speak of another era of city office life.

The very name “The Museum of Electrical Philosophy” evokes all kinds of ideas about this prime force. The idea of a strange private museum, like a UFO museum exhibiting in glass cabinets things as evidence for their belief. And it is plausible, after all the Nicholas Building houses the offices of many a small and little known organization. The display at the door changes each month – then it was an electrical circuit that counted itself, kinetic sculptures powered by electric motors including a small revolving Madonna in a crystal. Each of them has had some electrical content.

There is a fringe to the art world, where there is an on going dialogue about the very nature of art and the way it is displayed. The Duchamp code of deconstructing the art world with ordinary objects has expanded to boring the audience with its continuous repetition. In articles by Jean Baudrillard and so many other critics on contemporary art there is an element of despair about this direction. And I felt, having written a thesis about Duchamp’s readymades, that I was part of this unfortunate conspiracy. But there is another side of Duchamp, and consequently the post-Dada fringe, Duchamp’s strange optical machines, his inventions, and chess obsession. It is somewhere between eccentric, prank, madness and life; it is the part that never stopped having fun. This is the part of art that is truly critical of the boredom of contemporary art, the alternative, experimental part outside of the art galleries. It is the Dadaist element manifest not just in street art, or zines but also in the creations like Jim Hart’s “Museum of Electrical Philosophy”.

“The Museum of Electrical Philosophy” examines the aesthetics of the museum, the act of putting things on display under a title. It makes us think about the evolution of the wunderkammers and cabinets of curiosity towards contemporary exhibition practices (I recommend reading Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, 1986).  I haven’t seen that many museums-as-art before; Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s “Museum of Soy Sauce Art” (1999) was complete with a fake history, curatorial notes, a kiosk, and ancient, modern and contemporary soy sauce art. Another was the “Museum of Modern Oddities” (2001) that had its own curators and guidebook to explain the exhibits, combining both visual and performing arts. “The Museum of Electrical Philosophy” may be the smallest of these museums but it is a continuous one.

And, of course, there is the Museum of Electrical Philosophy Blog where Jim Hart writes about the Museum and the Nicholas Building.

(This blog entry is an edited version of an entry published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing as the Museum of Electrical Philosophy is still operating.)


Galleries & Museums

Modern and contemporary art is often aesthetically dependent on gallery spaces; the gallery or museum architecturally and aesthetically frames the work art. Despite the emergence of site-specific works, many works of contemporary art depend on the art gallery setting to give them meaning even existence. Modern art was also dependent on gallery spaces; it was the modern world that created the art gallery, the art museum and the contemporary art museum. The mode of exhibiting art in white walled cubes may appear to be natural and necessary whereas it is arbitrary and only sufficient.

Given that the art gallery/museum has been the prime location for art it is surprising that there has been very little written about the aesthetic impact and other effects of art galleries and museums. Paul Mattick, Jr. of Adelphi University notes this in his entry on museums in A Companion to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 1992); adding that “a quick survey of the British Journal of Aesthetics and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism turns up not a single article devoted to the subject.” (p.297) Mattick did say “a quick survey”; my research was better, because I found two articles in the first volume of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1941 (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy “Why Exhibit Works of Art” and John D. Forbes “The Art Museum and the American Scene”). Neither of these articles is particularly insightful and both conclude that there is an educational function to exhibition. Mattick’s entry in A Companion to Aesthetics is possibly the best article written on the subject; I wish that A Companion to Aesthetics had been published when I was writing my thesis it would have made my life a lot easier.

Mattick traces the history of the art museum from the proto-art galleries of European royalty designed to be impressive displays of power and wealth. To the first post-French revolution art museums that removed the religious, political and moral function of art organizing them and, in that process, expanding the categories of art to include, industrial and non-European arts.

Although the neo-classical architecture has mostly disappeared art museums haven’t changed their function from that of the proto-art gallery, a display of the state’s wealth and power. As displays of power political allegiances are on display in major art museums where the international collection will reflect the countries geo-political position. Those countries firmly in the American camp following the American version of art history in their collections, the Europeans having a slightly different version of art history and post-colonial countries another version.

And if articles about the aesthetic impact of art museums are rare, articles about art galleries are non-existent. This is why I pay particular attention to current gallery practices and to describing art galleries, counting the number of people working in the gallery, the type of lighting in the gallery, the type of space, etc. in this blog. Gallery practice will change but if nobody pays attention it people will assumed that current practice is natural. I wonder how much longer the white walled gallery will continue to be the norm?

(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)


Mute Relics & Bedevilled Creatures

Mute Relics & Bedevilled Creatures, at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is a response to ‘Reconcilation Week’ or NAIDOC Week.  It is a fun and thought-provoking exhibition. It is a strange kind of fun, like laughter, even if the laughter is bit bitter and crazy, it is still a laugh in the post-colonial wake of genocide.

It is important that aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists are part of this exhibition. There is an exchange in the references, appropriation and subversion of European or Australian images and materials. As in, Julie Gough’s “Ransom” where antlers are hung with giant beads of Tasmanian coal, or the inclusion of brown glass by John Duggan in his display of stone tools. Everyone owns the history.

Sam Leech’s future fauna are beautiful paintings of strange hybrid creatures, speculating on the future evolution of Australian fauna, like an albino kangaroos with antlers. Sharon West and Gary Smith have also created strange hybrid creatures; Smith’s “Flabbit”, a flying rabbit, is a wonder of taxidermy. In a reference to Duchamp the shadow of the flabbit in its cage is projected across the red surface of Smith’s triptych of paintings.

There are no shortage of spectacular works in this exhibition amongst them Kate Rohde’s 3 neo-rocco cabinets on gold tables, complete with exquisite levels of kitsch details, displaying fake displays of animal, vegetable and mineral specimens.  The highlight of the exhibition for me was seeing more paintings and dioramas by Sharon West. West is also one of the curators of the exhibition and has written an extensive essay on the exhibition for the catalogue. Her paintings especially the richly detailed interior of the Australian museum of megafauna summed up the exhibition and included Smith’s flabbit amongst the exhibits depicted.

Lurking behind this exhibition appears to be a strawman argument, a bogeyman of museums, a conservative dragon with a hoard. It is very different from the current museums and exhibition practice. It is also ironic for art that refers to and partially relies on the gallery institution for its viability. The installation and display of collections is played with through out the exhibition. Like, Denise Higgins “What Remains” that employs the aesthetics of clinical scientific minimalism, storage and labelling. And, especially, in Lyndon Ormond-Parker’s exhibition of historic texts in a vitrine.

Ralph Appelbaum, head of the world’s largest museum and exhibit design firm, said in the Guardian Weekly (01/6/09): “Museums are essentially ethical constructs.”  Taxonomies, categories and collections are all ethical constructs that prescribe values to the order that they create. (Read: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger) Even what we cannot classify, the “bedevilled creatures” of the exhibition, is itself classified. This may be for the purpose of exclusion and taboo or, in the case of this exhibition, a celebration of unique qualities.


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