Ipswich is a place that sometimes seems to struggle with ‘culture’. It has a rich heritage, medieval buildings, top-notch art and costume collections, yet the Borough Council has, IMHO, consistently overlooked the benefits of supporting and promoting art and culture in the town over the last few decades. In 2007 the responsibility for the management of the town’s museums and art galleries passed to Colchester Museums Service. Not just a different town, but a town in another county! When the old Ipswich Art School building reopened in 2010 with an exhibition of works from the Saatchi collection (a huge boon for the town), Andrew Cain, portfolio holder for culture and sport at Ipswich Borough Council proudly stated that ‘there’s very little public money going into this’. Kind of says it all really, doesn’t it?*
Thankfully, the working relationship with Colchester, seems to be bearing fruit. A redevelopment plan for Ipswich Museum has recently been drawn up, in partnership with, amongst others, The British Museum, University Campus Suffolk and Suffolk New College (which, incidentally, still owns the Art School site). A key component of this plan is the purchase of the Art School – well-known and respected in its day and counting Maggi Hambling and Brian Eno among its alumni.
The Art School is currently hosting exhibitions by local artists Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy and Gareth Bayliss. But is was ‘Here after this…OBJECT EXCHANGE’ that caught my eye. I decided to pay a visit.
Billed as an interactive installation, ‘Here after this…OBJECT EXCHANGE’ invites visitors to swap objects for their own items in a nod to letter-boxing and geocaching, creating a shifting display of ephemeral objects, in response to their own ideas about cultural exchange, communication and display (I lifted that last bit from the Art School website).
The installation comprises two wall-mounted shelves, upon which are arranged a series of numbered objects, accompanied by record books. The instructions on the wall invite visitors to remove an object that they find a particular association with, on the understanding that they replace it with something else that they are happy to leave at the gallery, and for someone else to take away. The ‘new’ object is photographed by gallery staff and logged in the record book, along with some brief information provided by the participant, about why they chose the object they took away and some details about the object they left.
On browsing through the record books it was clear that the majority have left things like food vouchers and tea bags – stuff they’ve found in their handbags, or pockets. Although some people have left more unique and personal objects, like self-made left-handled mugs and holiday souvenirs. Demographic information is not collected (at least, it’s not logged in the record books), but is clear from given names, the different wants and needs expressed, and the handwriting, that participants have been drawn from a range of backgrounds and ages.
While some of the objects might raise a few eyebrows (an unused tampon, for example), the ethos behind the installation is that it’s not, so much, the form and function of an object that is important (all inclusions are valid, according to the curatorial advice provided on the website), but the process: the trade and the meaning of the new object added or exchanged to the individual participant. After all, one man’s rubbish is another’s treasure. It is hoped that the log books will ultimately reveal how one type of object lead to each other, or, at least, that is the stated aim of the project.
These objects are accompanied by a selection of objects – printed fabric, video recordings and beadwork – from Ipswich Museum’s collection. These have been chosen by curators to provide a material and visual meeting-point between the two featured exhibitors – Chukwuogo-Roy and Bayliss (again, this last bit has been unashamedly nicked from the website).
So, what did I think?
I was impressed! The exhibition strikes me as the just the sort of project that museums and galleries should be organising in these straitened times. It offers a simple, low-tech, and inexpensive (read sustainable) way of engaging visitors’ of all ages and backgrounds, of exploring ‘museumification’ (this ticking the ‘reflexive praxis’ box) and putting less-often seen collections on display (accessibility, revisiting collections, other buzz-words). It certainly created a lot of debate amongst visitors while I was there – people seemed to enjoy the experience of picking objects up, flicking through the log books and reflecting on participants’ comments. The installation gave visitors permission to transgress those conventions of gallery-visits – not to touch, not to talk, and certainly not to find humour in what they saw and read. It also, hopefully, gave the people who took part a greater sense of ownership in, and appreciation of the value of the Art School and Borough collections. All good things.
Before I leave off, I also want to mention a few other things that caught my eye. The first, is the Common Room, which echoes the building’s former function as an educational institution. It gives visitors of all ages permission to react to the objects and ideas expressed in exhibitions at the Art School by drawing all over the walls – fantastic! Sadly, this function is drawing to an end, but will be replaced by works responding to objects in the museum’s collection by students of University Campus Suffolk and Suffolk New College, which on balance, is not a bad thing to promote.
I was also really cheered to see that the Art School had publicly recognises its regular volunteers by listing their names on a wall adjacent to the logos of official partners and friends of the development scheme. They are clearly highly valued.
Kudos also for the ingenious method of recording milestones in the fund-raising drive.
My summation – museums and galleries could learn something about low-tech, sustainable approaches to community engagement from Ipswich Art School. Definitely worth a visit should you find yourself in the area.
Ipswich Art School, High Street, Ipswich, Suffolk.
Open 10.00-17.00, Tuesday to Sunday.
*Perhaps some of my ire is sour grapes. I should disclose that I did my school work experience (at 15 years old) at Ipswich Museum. That fortnight effectively put me off museum work for six years. In spite of that bad experience, I tried to volunteer there during my MA in Museum Studies, and they were simply not interested (I note that they are actively seeking volunteers at the moment). I also had a horrible, soul-destroying meeting with one of the curators, who spent several hours bashing my self-confidence and doing down Museum Studies in Leicester. When I finally managed to get some voluntary work with another museum site in Ipswich, post-MA AND curatorial experience at a museum in London (as well as specialist knowledge of some parts of the collection) I was put on ‘toilet-direction’ and ‘goth displacement’ duties. Yeah, boughs of sour grapes, mate. Anyway…