Centuries of Collecting the Curious and Macabre through Digital Storytelling (Hyperallergic)

by Allison Meier on February 26, 2015 original article here.

Anatomical Venus by Clemente Susini from Florence, similar to what was in Joseph Kahn's anatomical museum (1771-1800) (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Anatomical Venus by Clemente Susini from Florence, similar to what was in Joseph Kahn’s anatomical museum. Kahn is featured in Wellcome Collection’s new digital story The Collectors (1771-1800) (courtesy Wellcome Library)

John Tradescant founded Britain’s first museum in the 17th century with a collection of mermaid hands, natural history specimens, and a purported piece of the crucifix. Centuries later, a newlywed paleobotanist named Marie Stopes published her collected knowledge from six months of reading “almost every book on sex in English, French, and German” at the British Museum in the 1918 Married Love. The Collectors, a digital story from Wellcome Collection launched earlier this month, joins both of these stories in an interactive narrative on collecting, curiosity, and access.

Photograph of Marie Stopes in her lab with microscope. (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Photo of Marie Stopes in her lab with microscope. (courtesy Wellcome Library)

The Collectors is the second such digital story from Wellcome, following Mindcraft, which debuted in December with a narrative on medical history, madness, and the history of mind control. Divided into six chapters, The Collectors gives brief portraits of six collectors with stories based in the UK, drawing on objects in the Wellcome Collection and Library, some of which are not on display. Features like video, data visualization, and portals into digitized resources on their stories are embedded in the scroll-down storytelling.

Written by Anna Faherty, the tales of the collectors are unified by their amassment of literature or objects that impacted public knowledge. Faherty stated in her “Why the World Needs Collectors” blog post that she “selected people who tell us something about the power of curiosity or the control of knowledge. Whatever their own motivation for acquiring things, the decisions collectors make about selecting, displaying and caring for objects or data have implications for us all.”

Starting page for Wellcome Collection's "The Collectors (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Starting page for Wellcome Collection’s “The Collectors” (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

For example, there’s haberdasher John Graunt who was the first to tabulate statistics in the Bills of Mortality, revealing the demographics of the 1662 London Plague. His story is accompanied by the eerie sound of the tolling bells summoning the “searchers” — the women who inspected the corpses. Their published macabre findings were, until Graunt, seen primarily as resources for gossip. For the story of John Kahn’s Anatomical Museum, opened in 1873 after most of the London medical museums had closed due to obscenity accusations, ghoulish fleshy noises and the clink of a knife accompany images of an anatomical Venus and dissection models similar to his displays. His actual collection, however, was destroyed after his prosecution under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act.

Both Mindcraft and The Collectors are hosted on a digital interface created by Wellcome Collection in collaboration with the digital agency Clearleft. The platform is a creative way of storytelling that can engage audiences with historic collections through the actual people behind them, while highlighting rarely-viewed objects in a new context.

“The digital stories are part of our ongoing strategy to commission and collaborate on digital projects that enhance Wellcome Collection’s program, and provide curious and intriguing experiences for an audience beyond our physical venue,” Danny Birchall, Wellcome digital manager and executive producer for the digital stories, told Hyperallergic. “We’re less interested in creating ‘virtual versions’ of exhibitions than we are in making digital a meaningful part of the program itself, from participatory social media projects to games and digital art commissions. Often a good digital project takes a spark of inspiration from one part of an exhibition and runs with it in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a physical space.”

Bills of mortality accumulating on a map of London in "The Collectors (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Bills of mortality accumulating on a map of London in “The Collectors” (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

 

Title page to a statistical analysis of mortality for the plague in London of 1665 (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Title page to a statistical analysis of mortality for the plague in London of 1665 (courtesy Wellcome Library)

 

Chapter on "The Curious Gardener" from "The Collectors (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Chapter on “The Curious Gardener” from “The Collectors” (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

 

Ethnographic collection: Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (1955) (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Ethnographic collection: Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (1955) (courtesy Wellcome Library)

 

The Collectors digital story is available at Wellcome Collection.

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The Mouse, an Unexpected and Enduring Art Muse (Hyperallergic)

by Allison Meier on November 12, 2014 original article here.

Shibata Zeshin, Mouse, nineteenth century, lacquer on paper. Object reg. no: 1928,0720,0.35, British Museum, London, United Kingdom. © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY.

Shibata Zeshin, “Mouse” (19th century), lacquer on paper. (© The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY)

As one of the most common mammals on our planet, the diminutive mouse has been scurrying its way into art for centuries. The rodent has now finally received its own art compendium with Lorna Owen’s Mouse Muse: The Mouse in Art, out next week from Monacelli Press.

Cover of "Mouse Muse" (courtesy the Monacelli Press)

Cover of “Mouse Muse” (courtesy the Monacelli Press)

Much of the book is derived from her Mouse Interrupted blog, which seeks out the animal in all eras and forms of art, like the wide-eyed creature gazing at a human in a glass cylinder among the wild symbolism of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” or the live creatures roaming through contemporary work by Carsten Höller and Liselot Van der Heijden. Owen explained her interest in the art mouse to Hyperallergic:

“The mouse is a remarkable mammal. In broad strokes, it has an acute sense of smell that actually surpasses that of cats and dogs; it is an excellent swimmer; and it’s been found to sing, ultrasonically, with actual repertoires of specific phrases. But what is provocative is that here we have a mouse, which many consider to be an insignificant creature; yet its well-known traits have sparked in art some of the most powerful expressions of who we are as humans — qualities that are often diametrically opposed: good and evil, industrious and shiftless, cowardly and courageous.”

Mouse Muse includes over 80 works in a compact hardback, with each example joined by a short essay exploring its history and reason for having a mouse, the full print of the piece paired with a detail of the mouse embedded in the text. And the reasons for including mice have changed over time, from empathetic bronzes in ancient Rome found in nearly every household, to an unwanted symbol of mortality lurking in still-lifes. Owen tracked down the vermin by examining works by artists known for their love of nature like Frans Snyders and Franz Marc, and even delved into journals and letters by artists, finding some surprises along the way such as that “Kandinsky was inspired by the placental tissue of a mouse for his biomorphic abstract painting ‘Capricious Forms.’

Art by John Constable in "Mouse Muse: The Mouse in Art" (photograph of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

Art by John Constable in “Mouse Muse: The Mouse in Art” (photograph of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

 

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (center panel, detail), c. 1490-1510, oil on panel. Prado, Madrid, Spain/Bridgeman Art Library.

Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (center panel, detail) (1490-1510), oil on panel. (courtesy Prado, Madrid, Spain/Bridgeman Art Library)

 

Giovanna Garzoni, Ceramic Bowl with Quinces, Morning Glories, Figs, Hazelnuts and a Mouse, 1651–1662, tempera on parchment. Collection of Silvano Lodi, Campione D’Italia. Courtesy of the Galleria Silvano Lodi & Due Milano.

Giovanna Garzoni, “Ceramic Bowl with Quinces, Morning Glories, Figs, Hazelnuts and a Mouse” (1651–1662), tempera on parchment. (Collection of Silvano Lodi, Campione D’Italia. Courtesy of the Galleria Silvano Lodi & Due Milano)

 

Art by Trey Friedman in "Mouse Muse: The Mouse in Art" (photograph of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

Art by Trey Friedman in “Mouse Muse: The Mouse in Art” (photograph of the book by the author for Hyperallergic)

 

Plenty of these discoveries are pocketed in Mouse Muse, some that show the woe that is the role of the animal model. While John Constable, who painted an 1824 portrait of “A Mouse with a Piece of Cheese,” delighted in caring for his mouse named Jack, for Sir John Everett Millais it was easier to have a more inert subject. In his 1851 “Mariana” a mouse quietly moves in the daylight shining through the stained glass by his Pre-Raphaelite lady. The little animal had been found by Millais in his studio right when he was wanting to include one in the painting, and as it darted behind a portfolio he kicked the case over and killed it, as he put it, “in the best possible position for drawing it.” Yet whether reviled infestation or resilient beast, the mouse definitely seems to have in its quiet way burrowed into the history of art.

Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851, oil on panel.  Tate, London, United Kingdom/Art Resource, NY.

Sir John Everett Millais, “Mariana” (1851), oil on panel. (courtesy Tate, London, United Kingdom/Art Resource, NY)

 

Frank Moore Wizard, 1994 oil on canvas with pharmaceuticals cast in lucite in aluminum frame 68 x 95 1/2 in. (172.7 x 242.6 cm)  SW 94116

Frank Moore, “Wizard” (1994), oil on canvas over wood with pharmaceuticals cast in lucite in an aluminum frame. (Private collection, Italy. Courtesy of the Gesso Foundation and Sperone Westwater, New York)

 

Joan Miró, Red Mouse with Mantilla, 1975, aquatint. Private Collection. © 2014 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. © Christie's Images/Bridgeman Art Library.

Joan Miró, “Red Mouse with Mantilla” (1975), aquatint. (Private Collection. © 2014 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Art Library)

 

Mac Adams, Empty Spaces: Mouse, 1997, silver print. Courtesy of the artist.

Mac Adams, “Empty Spaces: Mouse” (1997), silver print. (Courtesy of the artist)

 

The Barbed Noose with the Mice. 1923. Watercolor and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache. The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.13).

Paul Klee, “The Barbed Noose with the Mice” (1923), watercolor and gouache on paper. (The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.13), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY)

 

Roman empire, Figure of dormouse eating nut and Lamp lid with crouching mouse holding a Papposeilenos mask, first century, cast bronze. Object reg. no: GR 1873,0820.257, British Museum, London, United Kingdom. © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY.

Roman empire, Figure of dormouse eating nut & Lamp lid with crouching mouse holding a Papposeilenos mask, first century, cast bronze. (© The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY)