VARI Cabinets Workshop travels from art to science through a magic door

March 16, 2017

The past few days have seen VARI focusing on Opening the Cabinet of Curiosities — one of our key research projects.  Dr Lisa Skogh and Professor Bill Sherman led an international workshop looking at the influence the early modern cabinet has had on both 19th century thinking and recent contemporary art.

The working paper presentations were followed by a trip to Blythe House, where the reserve collections of the V&A, the Science Museum and the British Museum are currently held  Unusually, this group of researchers have the interest, expertise and methodology to be able to tackle both the V&A and the Science Museum collections.  We were fortunate that Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History of the Science Museum, was able to accompany us through from the ‘V&A side’ to the ‘Science Museum side’ of Blythe House.  But no-one knows the building better than Glenn Benson, pictured here at the magic door that leads from one discipline to the other.

Once we’d made it through the wormhole, there were a few surprises for Project Lead Lisa Skogh, who was delighted to find both virtuoso turned ivory pieces and the lathes that would have made them.  As well as some of the most senior scholars in the history of collections — such as Arthur MacGregor — we were accompanied by an international group of curators, archivists, early career researchers, collaborative doctoral award students, and two highly accomplished artists: Mark Dion and Jane Wildgoose (that’s Jane below on the right, with camera, glasses and notebook in tow!)

We ended the day with a special tour of the John Soane Museum led by its erudite and welcoming Deputy Director Helen Dorey, moving forward in time to a unique post-Enlightenment world.

The day before we had been offered an exciting challenge by Bill Sherman, who is Head of Collections and Research at the V&A, as well as Director of VARI and Co-Lead with Lisa on the Opening the Cabinet project.  Assembling us in the V&A Boardroom, he asked us what a contemporary Cabinet of Curiosities could look like if it were to be installed in the bookcases on the west wall.

He was certainly asking the right people!  From left to right: Professor Bill Sherman (V&A); Professor John Davis (Kingston University); Jana Riedl (CDA Doctoral Student, V&A and Queen Mary University of London); Christine Takegny (Contemporary Art Society); Johannes Vogel (Director, Berlin Museum fur Naturkunde); Bergit Arends (Curator and Research Manager, Science Museum); Dr Arthur MacGregor (Editor, Journal of the History of Collections); Mark Dion (artist); Professor Earle Havens (William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Johns Hopkins University); Dr Lisa Skogh (VARI); Liz Miller (Senior Curator, Prints and Drawings, V&A); Charlotte Johnson (Assistant Curator, Sculpture Metalwork Ceramics and Glass); Jane Wildgoose (artist).

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