Thursday 22 January 2015

Dresden Conference: Wildgoose Memorial Library

From theoretical surrealist curiosity to artistic rational enquiry, Jane Wildgoose's presentation on the work which has arisen from her 'Memorial Library' was rather interesting. I must confess to being rather sceptical at first because I wasn't sure where she was going, but in the end, the light she shed on national museums' archives was both shocking and influential on her work. I don't want to dwell too much on her own collection because, for me personally, this is the part about which I feel most ambivalent. I appreciate that her library of objects is meaningfully and obsessively collected, as well as being catalyst for her research, but I feel unhappy critically examining her collection here. I merely salute her, and suggest you look at her website.
In 2003 she created something eccentrically idiosyncratic around the memory of Horatio Nelson. Entitled 'One Lost Hair', this piece of memorial, performance art, theatrical reconstruction of a historic event was critically, if confusedly, well received. She followed it with the WML Portrait Project which set out explore relationships between objects and memory, the sensory and the emotional. Another programme, 'A Tale of Two Skulls' (2008) explored the complex issues surrounding the possession, scientific analysis and public display of human remains by tracing the history of two human skulls in her own private collection. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the relic-like status of Nelson's hair, against the 'scientific' 'rationalism' that led to these skulls being preserved.
One of these skulls turned out to be aborigine and her research led to her exhibition at St Pancras Church, London. On their site, it says, 'Transforming the Crypt Gallery into a Reading Room, Jane Wildgoose presents nineteenth century documentary material collected from letters, diaries, catalogues, and hairworkers’ manuals, together with examples of Victorian mourning culture from [her] collection. At the heart of the Archive a new hairwork wreath takes up temporary residence in the gallery, briefly sharing the final home of the 557 parishioners of St Pancras who were laid to rest there between 1822-1854. The wreath has been devised as a work in progress, and made as a commemorative tribute to the many “lost but not forgotten” individuals whose mortal remains were removed from colonial burial sites and hospitals during the late nineteenth century, to be objectified as scientific specimens on the shelves of metropolitan museums.
Human remains in various collections around the UK are now subject to Human Tissue Act 2004. Clearly there are benefits for archaeology etc when remains are excavated and yet controversies arise around the indefinite storage of bones and other remains. We are assured by museums that they are doing all they can to ensure sensitive treatment of such collections - especially indigenous peoples who may request repatriation of ancestors to complete mourning ceremonies.
In light of the programme she did on the skulls, she was asked to do research into the Royal College of Surgeons' archive at the Natural History Museum. These boxes of correspondence from suppliers, catalogues, and other material dated from 1930s when physical anthropology was historically at its most 'interesting'. Many skulls were taken from colonial burial grounds, causing great distress, for cataloguing so that (often amateur) anthropologists could try to prove racial hierarchies. As she pointed out, the letters show that suppliers were people who should have known better - diplomats, civil servants etc. As an outsider she was able to be more critical, and indeed her findings were shocking.
Unbridled, uncritical curiosity led to a disturbing objectifying of human remain, which in hindsight, had no scientific basis. As soon as curiosity and wonder are detached from rigorous ethics and consciousness, institutional/state abuse of power is inevitable. She stated that the rise of taxonomies and scientific rationality is what led to these ethical disasters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Royal Anthropological Institute archives is another place that would benefit from her sensitive collector's eye. 
Since then the NHM has worked hard with aborigines to repatriate remains, as well as inviting artists to set up a dialogue between art-history-science. Australian artist Daniel Boyd spent 3 months as artist-in-residence at the Natural History Museum in 2011 and his work looked at 'loss'. As he said,  'the amount of information that can be read from an image and the amount of information that's lost through time. Deliberate or indeliberate.' Jane concluded that this dialogue and co-operation is essential, asking, how do you involve people who matter equally? There is no point returning items if they don't want it, so there has to be discussion. 

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