As as the Director/Curator of a university art gallery that holds a permanent collection of art, I often think of ways in which objects can be displayed and understood in new contexts. Typically, museum collections are siloed, as are the displays. For example, at a natural history museum you rarely see visual art being used as a counterpoint to understanding scientific specimens. With the exhibition, the Boundless and Framed, I wanted to see how material culture collections might be displayed together, and how this might in turn inform and encourage a more cross-disciplinary understanding of the objects on display.
Universities often have several collections, typically housed entirely separately and rarely presented together. These collections may be hard to access, or rest solely under a department’s purview. This post shows the fertile ground for research and exploration in university collections – and demonstrates how they can function to expand our knowledge and understanding across disciplines and material culture. The exhibition, The Boundless and Framed, gathered objects from three seemingly disparate collections and displayed them together for the first time. The exhibition highlighted how artists, writers and scientists have represented, reflected and responded to the cultural, social and scientific realm of birds.
The first set of objects came from the permanent collection of art and formed the central focus of the exhibition in the art gallery. Artwork included well known Atlantic Canadian artists such as Alex Colville, to Inuit sculptures and works on paper, Asian imperial rank badges, and works by women artists. The second set of objects came from the Esther Clark Wright archives. This included archival documents such as the notes of ornithologist and conservationist Robie Tufts. The third set of objects came from the Acadia Wildlife Museum, a natural history collection that is predominantly used for teaching and learning in the biology department. Material in the exhibition from this collection included a selection of natural specimens of the same birds depicted in the artwork on display.
The exhibition explored the ways in which birds have been understood through these collections: as artistic study, as symbolic representation and as scientific inquiry. It showed how material culture objects can inform each other and how thematic connections move away from a binary timeline and expands context in which an object can be understood.
For example, “Grand Entrance,” 2008 a large print by Kenojuak Ashevak, was installed along with specimens of ptarmigans, which are important birds in northern climates. The types of objects selected for display also have embedded power structures – what gets pulled of a vault, and what doesn’t. In Canada, Inuit art has typically been subsumed under wider ethnographic collections, and the Canadian art history canon has often omitted the integral contributions of Indigenous artists.
Increasingly, institutions such as the National Gallery of Canada are working to incorporate a wider historiographical and cultural range of art. For example, they recently attempted to correctly position Indigenous art at the centre of the Canadian art canon with their large scale rehang of the Canadian wing in 2017, their largest gallery transformation.
On a smaller scale of a university art gallery – the types of art objects displayed can also help to facilitate a wider, more diverse scope of art history. The Acadia University Art Gallery has a sizeable collection of Inuit sculpture, and works on paper. The inclusion of Inuit art in this exhibition was a purposeful choice to make the public more aware of the collection and an active effort to include Inuit artists in a wider art historical discussion.
By incorporating scientific specimens alongside artworks, it allowed visitors to understand scale and differences in species. For example, the differences between a crow and a raven, which were juxtaposed alongside works by Alex Colville and Nancy Edell. While the displays encouraged visitors to reflect upon the scale, representation and reality in the displays of art and scientific specimens, such as in the case of the delicate miniatures of Gwen Hales, with the tiny specimens of hummingbirds; they also again hoped to encourage visitors to learn more about the artists on display, and again what gets collected and omitted.
Hales was a botanical painter, so her works bridge the gap between science and art. The works also highlighted how historically botanical painting was one of the accessible artforms for women artists, who were kept out of other organizations, such as the Royal Academy. As Linda Nochlin explores in the seminal essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” barriers existed for women to establish their careers as visual artists.
Many of the works included in this exhibition were created by women artists, as a way to highlight their work and show artists who have historically been marginalized from collections and museums. The lack of representation by women artists in museum collections has been the focus of many recent collecting initiatives, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Women’s Art Initiative launched in 2017, which aims to expand their holdings of works by women artists.
Other areas of the exhibition invited visitors to reflect on their experience by drawing direct from nature. For example, in the case of a hands on area of an eagle specimen and another didactic area encouraged visitors to look at literary connections and symbolism related to birds. This area encouraged visitors to make their own comparisons of objects in the exhibition, to reflect on what they are observing, and to contribute to the knowledge exchange of the display.
It is of no surprise that museums and their collections are sites of power, as Tony Bennet so argued in the exhibitionary complex. Many questions can be asked of museums: what is the historiography of a collection? how has it come to be displayed? There is often as much to be said about the absence as well as the presence of what is found in collections.
On the surface, The Boundless and Framed is an exhibition that explores the social and cultural meanings of birds. However, it also demonstrates the possibility for seemingly disparate material culture collections to form new connections of knowledge and understanding.
Laurie Dalton is a curator and historian of visual culture, with a Phd in Canadian Studies. She is currently Director/Curator of the Acadia University Art Gallery and Adjunct Professor, Dept. of History and Classics, Acadia University. Her research is cross-disciplinary with a focus on museums, displays and audience within transnational frameworks.