CoCA SSN Symposium January 2020 by Jane Audas

The latest CoCA SSN Symposium: The Curator’s Challenge – Reinterpreting and Re-imagining Ceramic Collections, was held on Thursday, 30 January 2020 in the Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). It was billed as a symposia exploring the challenges and opportunities in rethinking approaches to displaying ceramics in museum collections.

A full house welcomed the first speaker, Katie Morton, Exhibitions Curator at Birmingham Museums Trust who talked about her research, part of a forthcoming major redevelopment at the gallery, in her talk: From Ancient Peru to Lucie Rie and beyond: Working towards new ceramics displays at Birmingham Museums. With the aid of a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial grant Katie has been out looking at how other organisations approach ceramics display. She visited CoCA, V&A, Crafts Council, Stoke City Art Gallery and Nottingham. She returned thinking about the importance of colour, contrast and space for displaying individual ceramic pieces. Their new galleries will be aimed at a family audience and they plan to develop themed galleries, rather than chronological ones.

Ann-Louise Sommer, Director of the Design Museum, Copenhagen spoke next on: The Attraction of Presence: Authenticity in Museums. Ann began by discussing the increasing digital presence within museums, citing Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul. Where, she argued, the digital draws attention away from the objects. And where audiences have experiences that they could as easily have at home. Digital leaves no room for social connections. There is a now a paradigmatic shift in museums, she said, to engage locals and to encourage ‘social impact’ in the community. How can you be a traditional museum in an untraditional way?

Next Annabelle Campbell, Head of Exhibitions and Collections of the Crafts Council (CC) gave a talk entitled: Orchestral Manoeuvres: curating the Crafts Council Collection. She talked to us about the new galleries opening soon, which will be centred on collecting and will present a: ‘new home for craft’. In the new gallery the display will change every 18 months, to show as much of the CC collection as possible. For inspiration they went back to Ralph Turner’s 1982 exhibition: The Makers Eye. And 13 makers selected works for the forthcoming exhibition: Makers Eye, opening in March 2020.

Next came Disrupting Expectations: Artists at The Fitzwilliam Museum a talk by Helen Ritchie, Curator, Applied Arts at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. She talked to us about their work with artists. “Working with artists increases the voices heard in museums. They can do things we can’t do.’ Artist Matt Smith worked on an exhibition using the museum’s Parian ware porcelain, of which they have over 300 pieces. They didn’t really want to display them ‘as is’ and instead invited Smith to explore contradictions and to produce work inspired by the collection.

Jennifer Lee in The Presentation of Pots talked to us about the Museum of Mankind, where her (then) RCA tutor Eduardo Paolozzi often took his students. Then she talked about an exhibition in the Palazzo Fortuny, in Venice, where contemporary work was shown within a gothic setting and described the displays in that. Then Jennifer talked about materials one might be shown on and in particular the exhibition: U-Tsu-Wa, in 2009, at Issey Miyake’s Foundation in Japan. The exhibition was designed by Tadeo Ando and in it Jennifer was shown alongside Lucie Rie. The pots stood on glass, on water, and looked as if they were floating.

Finally Claire Curneen talked about her major work that is in the V&A: Tending the Fires, 2016 in a talk titled: Tending the Fires. Consisting of 100 separate parts and over 25m long, it was made at a time she was working with museums, and she is, she said, comfortable in museums. All the objects in the piece fit together in a specific way. Yet it appears fragmented, fractured, in flux. The piece has a sense of ‘you are not sure what’s happening’, of ‘something that is not quite adding up’. It took 10 months to make, leaving her studio looking like a crime scene. The piece was first shown at Collect in 2017, it toured and then ended up at the V&A.

The whole day was busy and energetic, the speakers covering lots of ground and giving us lots to think about when considering the display and redisplay of ceramics. Innovation, audience evaluation, artist interventions and different voices were some of the takeaways I took away with me.

Jane Audas, freelance writer, curator and digital consultant.

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