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What can contemporary artists bring to your historical exhibit?

Credit: Anthony Harvie / Getty Images

Contemporary art has become a common feature in our heritage sites.

And for good reason. These are projects that interpret, that inspire and that shock. They make the headlines and change our perspectives – whether it’s the staggering contemporary art intermingled with the historic collection at Chatsworth, or the iconic Poppies pouring down the Tower of London.

Specialist organisations such as Arts&Heritage and Trust New Art, set up to facilitate these interventions, are over a decade old, and the catalogue of contemporary art across the sector is impressive.

But as we all reflect on our budgets and goals for the coming years – what will inspire us to continue investing in contemporary art? What exactly do contemporary artists bring to historical exhibits?

Mapping contemporary art interventions

In 2017, researchers from the University of Newcastle and the University of Leeds began the Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience (MCAHE) project to shed light on the impact of contemporary art interventions. They felt that “despite strong support from major organisations including the National Trust and ACE, the actual impact of such projects on their producers and audiences is poorly understood”. Over three years, MCAHE worked to understand how contemporary art projects impact the host organisation, the artist and the audience.

MCAHE commissioned seven works of art in heritage environments in the North East of England, resulting in case studies which give insights from the first steps in developing the artist’s brief through to long term benefits to the host organisations. The project also mapped contemporary art in heritage venues across the UK and resulted in an exhibition and a conference.

The researchers found that the commissions were transformative for all involved. For the artists, the projects had the potential to develop their practice and offer new paths in their careers. For the venues, the art could present narratives in an emotionally engaging way, which attracted new audiences to the site. “Presenting histories differently or more vividly increases knowledge and encourages enquiry.” they report, “Artists can play a significant and important role in revealing and exploring new creative modes of presentation.”

The research highlights the need for building a relationship between the organisation and the artist. Organisational buy-in is vital across every level of the organisation, and embracing the creative process in working closely with the artist is essential.

And the potential impact is impressive. The report continues,  “The MCAHE research revealed areas where practical change and reviewing commissioning processes can give voice to hidden histories and to hitherto silenced narratives through: a) telling different stories associated with heritage sites and b) generating opportunities for more diverse artists from marginalised groups.”

Let’s look at some projects that consider these hidden, lost or overlooked stories.

Contemporary art for interaction

Clare Twomey’s commission for the Brontë Parsonage Museum required the audience to re-write history.

This project took inspiration from Wuthering Heights – and its long-lost manuscript. Twomey invited visitors to create a new manuscript of the novel and asked each visitor to write out a line of the text by hand. 10,000 participants aged between 6 and 90 wrote the resulting manuscript, and the closing line was written by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall.

“Each participant will be gifted a pencil, commissioned by the artist, as a tool for further writing.” the museum notes “Clare Twomey hopes that the act of sitting at a table in the house where Emily wrote her novel, and to hold a pencil and write, will build understanding of Emily and her determination to create the one published work of her lifetime.”

Artists as researchers: controlled rummaging

Bummock: Artists in Archives is an artist-led project spearheaded by researchers and contemporary artists Danica Maier and Andrew Bracey. The ‘Bummock’ refers to the part of the iceberg hidden under the sea – and Bracey and Maier’s work uses the unseen parts of archives as inspiration for new contemporary pieces.

Through projects at Nottingham Trent University’s Lace Archives and the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln, the artists have created a route map for developing relationships with heritage organisations. Their ‘controlled rummage’ relies on mutual trust and understanding developed between the archivist and the artists. The ‘controlled rummage’ methodology is an intuitive approach to research, which relies on spending time physically with the archive to observe, discuss and explore.

“The archivist takes an active part in this method, using their specialist knowledge to help identify what is already the tip, or key known aspects, and what might be considered the bummock of their archive.” The artists explain in their publication ‘Bummock: Tennyson Research Centre’, “While there may be a perceived risk by archivists and collection management professionals in allowing direct access to archives and collections, through a combination of discussion and trust in the artist researchers, these can be overcome.”

These projects have resulted in Exhibition-Laboratories, alongside Symposiums, texts and a documentary. The exhibitions have also toured, including items from the archives, taking these Collections to new audiences.

Prisoners on Prisoners – Contemporary counterpoints

Faye Claridge’s Prisoners on Prisoners project sheds light on the experiences of female prisoners – through records from Victorian prisons and narratives from present-day inmates.

Claridge asked participants from HM Askham Grange to ‘adopt’ characters taken from Ripon Museums record books. The resulting exhibition presented their responses to these historical characters through a video installation and a large scale fabric print. These artworks shared the inmates reflections on their own experiences of being within the justice system, their comparisons to their adopted counterparts, and an insight into the experience of being a woman prisoner.

Listen to some of the recordings here.

Contemporary art for storytelling

At the MCAHE Conference, John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Culture and Engagement at the National Trust, championed the importance of contemporary interventions saying that “what is vital to me is to approach our stories from a hundred different directions,  not from one, and to begin to tell far more stories”.

This storytelling power offers masses of potential for museums. It’s clear that contemporary art can not just make our interpretation more accessible or more vivid, but can uncover lost or overlooked stories, building our understanding and creating meaningful connections with our audiences.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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