2nd September 2019: Research Trip/Holiday – Stanley Kubrick exhibition and The Grant Museum

The final day of our research holiday we visited the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum. There was something interesting in the prominent display of Kubrick’s possessions (editing table, shelves of books etc) and objects associated with each film’s production (such as the clapper boards), these seemed to project some kind of ‘aura’ – is this purely because of their association with Kubrick and his work? I’m reminded again of my experience of the sculpture garden at Shakespeare’s New Place, wondering if the ‘authenticity’ of these objects actually has anything at all to do with that feeling – how do we know these objects are even original, apart from being told so? And does, or would, that effect our experience of them?

These notions of ‘aura’ and ‘authenticity’ were prominent in my mind as we moved through the exhibition, and how different objects raised different aspects of this. The film props and costumes (such as the helmet from Full Metal Jacket and typewriter from The Shining), objects I’d only ever seen in the films themselves, highlighted the abstract value placed on things we’ve only ever encountered in their facsimile and, again, would it even matter if they were replicas? I think this question has more to do with knowing if the object is ‘genuine’ or a replica – how would that knowledge effects our experience? Here, I’m running into the conceptual tension between (honest?) replicas and fakes – but it points to something interesting, that this notion of ‘aura’ is a thing projected onto the object, not something inherent within it… this is clearly a deeply philosophical idea and I wonder how far I should dig into it?? (I’ve also noticed I’m using that term ‘aura’ a lot, so should probably dig some more into Walter Benjamin – but I’m using it here as a placeholder for some sort of almost ‘magical’ value we place onto a thing – usually because of who it has been made by or associated with)

A different sense of ‘authenticity’ was presented in the reconstructed set from 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was reminded of the ‘reconstructed authenticity’ of the living history sites (The Weald and Downland and Mary Arden’s Farm).

I also noted with interest the amount of detail put into the props – such as the labels applied to the bottles of pills in the survival kit from Dr Strangelove (only seen briefly in the film) and the “All work and no play” manuscripts from The Shining in different languages (for worldwide distributions of the film) – there was something hugely admirable (and satisfying) in seeing the meticulous attention to detail Kubrick applied to his films.

I also noted the prominence of process in the exhibition. I was particularly interested in the index cards Kubrick used to plan and plot his narratives (index cards being one of my own preferred methods for organising my thinking), the concept drawings for sets, costumes and effects, and the correspondence relating to film production. It’s an interesting way to approach an exhibition about film – a reproducible, linear and disseminated medium. I’m thinking of the idea that museum artefacts (or in this case media artefacts) are relational networks of objects and documentation (Museum collections as relational networks) – there’s something in this displaying of the traces of the creative process.  It’s also interesting to see the negotiation and collective creativity that goes into producing a single work – again I’m reminded of the hidden labour that goes into making creative ‘things’, the points where creative decision making occurs and how that is captured, recorded or documented (if at all).

What this exhibition encapsulated for me, was an idea that had been developing throughout this trip – that there are different ‘authenticities’:

•    Encountering a ‘genuine’ object, a thing ‘touched’ by (or associated with) a particular person/place/event etc. (‘aura’?) – this is an almost ‘magic’ quality, something projected onto the thing, so what happens to our experience if this cannot be verified, or a deception occurs?

•    Reconstructed authenticity – a thing (or performed act) explicitly not ‘genuine’ but as accurately reconstructed as possible in order to provide an ‘authentic’ experience.

•    Interpreted authenticity – something partially reconstructed to draw attention to a specific aspect or experience (I’m thinking here of the Tyvek costumes at Shakespeare’s New Place or the ‘gamified’ interactive displays at the Weald & Downland)

We ended our trip with a visit to The Grant Museum of Zoology – one of my favourite museums (because I love skeletons and dead things in jars!).

What I noted on this visit were some of the methods of display – in particular the display of small specimens, such as the jars of skeletons too tiny to be wired up and the microscope slides, which were displayed en mass to create almost architectural wall panels. I also noted the use of models (such as the glass slugs), something I had never noticed on my previous visits. Some of these date back to the 19th century, and I was intrigued by the idea of commissioning artists and craftspeople to create replicas as teaching aids. I wondered if there was an understanding (before mass photography etc) that artists were able to capture the materiality and physicality of these specimens and I picked up a small publication about these models to read further. I also noted several artist responses to the collection and was impressed that such a small museum would have such a strong artist presence – I wondered if it had something to do with it’s history of working with artists to create their models or, indeed, the fact that The Grant Museum welcomes artists to work from their collection (something I have done several times in order to draw specimens). Finally, I was highly amused by the collection of plastic toy dinosaurs (again something I’d not notice before) that had been used as teaching aids and were now officially part of the museum collection. It got me wondering about how these mass-produced models relate to the earlier handmade ones and about how objects with little inherent value (being cheap and mass produced) can be imbued with value because of their absorption in a museum collection – is this some sort of ‘institutional aura’? (Again, I’ve read about this in the past… I need to dig out my books!!)

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