A Mini-Museum at the Royal Geographical Society

At one end of the Pavilion exhibition space of the Royal Geographical Society, I created a mini-museum based on experiences of looking into the South Asian Textile Collection at the V&A: a small display which explored the activities of collection and display in the colonial nineteenth century. As an installation it faced the pallets and carrier bags (see the May post for images) which I had used to evoke the contemporary passage of goods across the continents from South Asia to British retail outlets. In this ‘facing’, I wanted to suggest that the colonial past and post-colonial present hold each other in inescapable relationship and to make visible the centuries-old entanglements of British and South Asian cultures of ornament.

Mini-museum made for the exhibition ‘Moving Patterns’, at the Royal Geographical Society, May 2009.

Mini-museum  Helen Scalway 2009 Mini-museum  Helen Scalway 2009

This is a crest I created for a show in London’s Royal Geographical Society. The helmet is derived from the V&A’s royal crest and the flowers are from embroideries on display in the museum’s Nehru Gallery. The museum has always been an open and sharing institution but it is interesting that the helmet, on a royal crest from another era, suggests the opposite: power sustained by a heavy defendedness, limiting vision. The back of the crest includes a photo of a memorial in a church in Mumbai, to a British soldier who died in India in the 1840s, with samples of South Asian textiles reproduced from the textile archive at the V&A.

 crest  Helen Scalway 2009

The Victorians collected plants, butterflies, and ornament – for example, see Owen Jones’s iconic collection, The Grammar of Ornament. The work here, based on a nineteenth century botanical illustration of an Indian waterlily or ‘lotus’, combined with a South Asian textile in the archive at the V&A, was created to suggest the links between these different kinds of collection.

Collecting plants, collecting textiles   Helen Scalway 2009 Collecting Plants, collecting textiles 2    Helen Scalway 2009

But the links can become unruly; ornament, like plant life, has an independence which refuses to be pinned down in a box

Textile butterflies  Helen Scalway 2009

 butterfly collection   Helen Scalway 2009  detail) Helen Scalway 2009

Butterfly Box  Helen Scalway 2009

 factory  Helen Scalway 2009

In these images, the butterflies have been pinned down in a new habitat: they appear against the spinning machinery of a nineteenth century textile mill. In the nineteenth century, as sometimes now, collecting and possessing on a vast scale was often connected with a quest for knowledge leading to power and wealth, and the possession of knowledge went with wealth-creation. These images place a butterfly collection, based on South Asian textiles, in a new habitat: among the spinning machines in a nineteenth century Lancashire cotton mill, a place where fortunes might be lost but also made.

Some of Albert's Beasts

Prince Albert was a driving force behind the creation of the South Kensington Museum, today known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. Royal crests are to be found both inside and outside the museum building. But the wealth of Britain in the nineteenth century was hugely enhanced by its colonies. The royal crest, the might it conveys, was backed by the treasures of the colonies, including the textile treasures of India. The thought inspired me to create an artists book. In this image, heraldic British lion cut-outs derived from decorative floor tiles inside the V&A Museum, frame samples from the V&A’s South Asian textile collection.

Here are some more images from the book, entitled ‘Some of Albert’s beasts

Albert's beasts 3  Helen Scalway 2009 Albert's beasts 2  Helen Scalway 2009

Some of Prince Albert's beasts  Helen Scalway 2009

This image, a 3-d collage in an ‘archive box’, came about as a result of thinking about the ‘knowledge’ which a museum may contain and foster, and the ‘understanding’ sought by an artist. It gives a glimpse into my studio during an earlier residency to explore this project at Wimbledon College of Art. The studio photo is framed by the great ceramic staircase at the V&A. In my mind as I made this piece was the question: How do the understandings generated in the artists studio, relate to the knowledges generated by the museum, and vice versa? And how does their origin within institutions affect the form they take?

ceramic stairs with studio diorama - Helen Scalway 2009

The image of my studio appears in an earlier blogpost. The many photos on the walls were taken in India, in Green Street, E7, where there are many South Asian textile shops, and in the South Asian textile collection at the V&A.

Below are some more such 3-d ‘dioramas’, all scenes from the museum and its South Asian textiles, playing on such nineteenth century modes of display and entertainment as dioramas and paper theatres (eg ‘Pollock’ theatres).

Archive box  Helen Scalway 2009 Bursting  archive   Helen Scalway 2009  detail  Helen Scalway 2009

An ‘archive box’ in which a photo of the patterning created by the highly rational, functional drawers in the textile store at the V&A is reframed by a sample of their contents, in this case a nineteenth century Indian beetlewing garment border embroidered on net, whose pattern speaks of a quite different notion of what ‘function’ in a garment might entail.

This ‘archive box’ fails to contain its 3-d collage. A photo of the nineteenth century ceramic staircase at the V&A is interlaced with an embroidered flower photographed in the museum’s Nehru Gallery of South Asian design, combining in an interplay of different kinds of power and energy.

The question here is what frames what? An ‘archive box’ in which a photo of the National Art Library at the V&A, (which might be seen as ‘framing’ knowledge), is itself framed and animated by the energy of a giant flower from a textile in its South Asian Collection, which bursts the box.

The exhibition was open in May 2009 and is now closed. In my next post, which will be my last on this project, I will be reflecting on the whole experience. Eventually many images from the exhibition will appear on the V&A’s online site for the ‘Fashioning Diaspora Space’ project.

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