Modern/Contemporary Art and the Curiosity Cabinet

Hirst's "The Golden Calf", image from http://www.studio-international.co.uk

This post published at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums Blog on February 13, 2011.

Would you pay 18 million dollars for a calf with gold-dipped hooves and horns submerged in a formaldehyde solution? What prices would you be willing to pay for various rarities and commodities just to say you own them? Damien Hirst’s “The Golden Calf” was just one of the oddities mentioned in by Matthew Palczynsk, Staff Lecturer for Western Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in his recent presentation on “Organizing the Curious Damien Hirst.”

Approximately one-hundred people attended the February 5 symposium organized by Seton Hall’s MA Program in Museum Professions which accompanied the exhibition “Working in Wonder” in the Walsh Gallery. The group exhibition, curated by Erin Gray, Danielle Schallom, and Edward Stapley-Brown included artwork by artists that have been inspired by the Curiosity Cabinet, a historical era of collecting occurring between 1500 and 1700.

After a brief welcome and introduction from Dr. Petra Chu, Director of Museum Studies at Seton Hall, the symposium featured eight speakers, a roundtable discussion with artists included in the show, and a wonderful reception in the Gallery. The Keynote Speaker, Lawrence Weschler, Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, began with “A Natural History of Wonder.”

Weschler describing the Cameroonian Stink Ant. Photograph by Danielle Schallom.

Weschler discussed a variety of bizarre artifacts that may be found at The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California: fruit stone carvings, Cameroonian Stink Ants and vulgar medical treatments. Shown in a sarcastic way, but truthfully displayed, the rarity of these objects is similar to what might have been found in early cabinets. Museums are said to be the voice of authority, but why do we believe the sometimes absurd things we are shown?

Other speakers included:

Kirsten Hoving, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Art History at Middlebury College, who presented “Thinking Inside the Box: Joseph Cornell’s Cabinets of Cosmic Curiosity.”

Melissa Ragain, a PhD candidate in Art history at the University of Virgina, presented “Wonder as a way of Seeing: Gyorgy Kepes and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies.”

Patricia Allmer, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Jonathan Carson and Rosie Miller, artist collaborators, University of Salford, presented “Playing in the Wunderkammer.” The speakers discussed their 2009 exhibition, The Story of Things which was shown at The Manchester Metropolitan University. The artists used artifacts from the collections not as objects but as pieces of art within larger works. The narrative in which they were placed created a type of fiction, playing a game of making up relationships between objects without a linear relationship.

Photograph by Danielle Schallom.

Joanna Ebenstein, cabinetist at the Morbid Anatomy Library, presented “To Every Man his Cabinet or The Morbid Anatomy Library and Cabinet and the Revival of Cabinets of Curiosity.”

The Symposium concluded with a Roundtable led by Jeanne Brasile, Director of Seton Hall University’s Walsh Gallery. Brasile led a discussion with artists Paul Baumann, Tracy Heneberger and Susan Napack, three of the artists featured in the Gallery’s exhibition. Topics included the artists’ choices of materials and an inquiry as to whether each artist felt they were as eccentric and the curiosities they both create and mimic.

Is the curious form of collecting making a comeback?

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