Art and the Modern Museum

A dead tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde – museum exhibit or work of art?

I’m guessing the £8-million price tag for Damian Hirst’s infamous work (albeit a recreation) plonks it firmly in the vastly over-valued art world, but the point is that contemporary art and museums seem to be enjoying a cosier relationship than ever before.

Hirst even once said: “I always thought it would be great if art galleries were more like the Natural History Museum, where you go in and there’s this big wow factor, rather than having to ask yourself, ‘What am I supposed to be thinking?’”

And “traditional” museums have become venues where artists such as Grayson Perry want to display their works: “I wanted to find out how the context of such an august institution [the British Museum] affected the audience’s reaction to my art”.

Museum collections are also a major source of inspiration to many contemporary artists and the Visitor Services team regularly sees this in action on the galleries, so I thought I’d share some examples here.

George Burgess is a first-year photography student at Manchester Metropolitan University who visited Manchester Museum this month, seeking ideas and inspiration for an exhibition piece on the theme of ruins.

Below are some of the brilliant research photos he shot around the Museum and the Ancient Worlds displays in particular.

George Burgess
George Burgess

Visit George’s blog to see more of his research work.

Museums and their collections are also among the subjects of a new visual arts exhibition entitled Wundercamera, currently showing at Manchester’s Holden Gallery.

Mark Dion
Mark Dion

It features works exploring the nature of museum displays and includes photographs by Mark Dion, whose Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy installation once again proved a source of intense fascination to visitors of the recent Coral exhibition.

Traer Scott - Natural History
Traer Scott – Natural History

While visiting the gallery the pieces that really caught my eye were those of Traer Scott, who makes photographs of taxidermy displays in museums.

Scott puts the visitors right in the centre of her work by catching their reflections in the glass in order to merge “the living and the dead” – and thus juxtaposing tourists and tigers as here.

Feeling suitably inspired and creative after seeing all these great photographs, I went roaming around Manchester Museum on a mission to emulate Scott’s work in a single image.

Armed with a distinctly average digital camera and possessing (clearly) no photographic skills, I captured this meeting of minds on the Living Worlds gallery.

Maybe on your next visit to Manchester Museum you too could unleash your inner artist and see what you’re inspired to create – although I’m reliably informed shark pickling ain’t as easy as it looks.

And feel free to share the results of your artistic endeavours on the Living Worlds Flickr stream.

In the meantime, you can see how the professionals do it at the Holden Gallery on Cavendish Street, from now until May 9th (excluding April 14th – 27th when it’s closed for the Easter break).

The exhibition is free and is open Monday to Friday from 10am until 4.30pm and late nights on Thursdays until 7pm.

Holden Gallery

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