The Quote On The Wall

The other day we had a South Kensington day out; did the Science Museum (to look at the Turing exhibition); the temporary butterfly house outside the Natural History Museum and then the NHM itself – though just concentrating on the Mineral Gallery, which is undoubtedly my favourite room of any London museum. It was a weekend too – and the Earth Hall (or whatever it’s called) was shut – so the more showboating wings of the NHM were absolutely rammed. But even when it gets super-busy, the Mineral Gallery is a touch quieter.

Anyway, it was a great few hours and by restricting ourselves mainly to that one extraordinary collection of rocks in the NHM, we didn’t get overwhelmed by the scale of the museums. At the back, in what they now call The Vault, where they show the rarest, most precious bits of rock’n’gem, there are amazing items but this time I found myself most impacted by something else entirely – this wonderful, profound quote from John Berger, up on the wall.

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“That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe.”

I wonder where the technique came from to put quotes up on the walls at museums and galleries – is it as old as labelling itself? Surely not, since the vast bulk of museum and gallery labelling I can remember in my life has been kept fundamentally simple and dry. It must be a relatively recent addition to the way in which exhibitions are labelled and items on display are ‘enhanced’ by human wisdom.

Perhaps it is a physical symptom of the blurring of museums and galleries: Brighton Museum being, of course, a perfect example of that and right at the heart of that process, since it is our city’s key local museum, yet at the same time a gallery that showcases contemporary works, as well as our arts heritage, right alongside social history. The curators use lots of quotations at Brighton Museum and in general I like them a lot. I’ve not really thought about it before but this technique is an application of the knowledge of human thought, to share someone’s specific view of the space in which you’re looking at art, or archive.

This quotation is actually the only thing within the Jeff Koons exhibition I’ve been allowed to take a photograph of. Isn’t that odd, that because of Koons’ copyright one cannot share the work itself but can share his (perhaps wise, perhaps pithy, perhaps both) comment about the space in which he conducts his working life?

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“Museum spaces are spiritual spaces for art, so I like them in that way. There’s also a sense of protection – that work is looked at and is important.”

Unless directly chosen by the artist, or whoever said the thing quoted, once printed up large like that, the quotation itself is someone else‘s “work of art”. The curator who decided to put it up there is “the artist”. Right? Or not?

I wonder if it was as organic and prosaic as one individual veteran curator out there, now long retired, who at some point in the 1950s or 60s thought “Mm, what if I slap up a quotation next to this stuff, it’ll look REALLY cool?”

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Also, from the other end, it feels immensely flattering. Wouldn’t it be amazing to reach the point of establishment in your field, that your words are quoted in a museum or gallery? It has a lovely solid feel of permanence and ‘establishment’ (in the non-political sense of the word) and even if the exhibition is actually about your work – such as this Barbara Hulanicki quotation in her retrospective, from earlier this year – I can imagine seeing your own words printed up on a wall like this might actually feel more empowering than even seeing your work in glass boxes. Ms Hulanicki is still alive to read herself writ large in dark violet.

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(Admittedly it’s a bit of a cheesy aphorism rather than great wisdom, however it’s still probably quite inspiring to people who were just opened up by having looked at – and loved – her fashion design).

Forever is a myth though. It doesn’t remotely have any of the permanence we sense in it – and essentially the quotation is another context-based piece of stylistic decoration, peripheral to the museum’s journey. Exhibitions are hung to feel ‘real’ and embedded in the space, yet they’re as temporary as anything.

One of the earlier pictures I took, nearer the start of my residency, watched this process take place during the clear-out of the Biba And Beyond exhibition. Etching off the words, they vanish as fast as they appeared…

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Berger has a rock-like feel of importance that gives weight to his words. In his case, the words qualify. Yet someone, at some point, is just going to rub him off and put something else there.

Chris T-T, Blogger in Residence

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