The Newport Museum Postcard Museum
Essay by Emma Dean, 2008
‘In the view that defines us as modern, there are an infinite number of details. Photographs are details. Therefore, photographs seem like life. To be modern is to live, entranced, by the savage autonomy of the detail’.
– Susan Sontag, At the Same Time.
The public museum is a repository for knowledge and shared histories, a final resting place for art, artefacts and antiquities. Objects are accessioned, labelled, and then interred in dimly lit cases; paintings, sculptures and photographs carefully positioned on walls and floors. The displays provide us with a wealth of information which illuminates and inspires. As we navigate these spaces, our experience is marked by a series of encounters with the exhibited objects. Madeline Djerejian's project The Newport Museum Postcard Museum investigates the nature of these encounters, presenting us with a set of images which not only document and explore the collection but consider the subjective act of looking.
Artists have produced work in response to the museum institution since the first public museum came into being in the late eighteenth century. Artist-photographers in particular have explored the museum environment: Louise Lawler has documented gallery exhibits and storerooms, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Thomas Struth have recorded the gallery visitor engaging with the artworks on display; Candida Höfer has photographed the interiors of museum buildings and public institutions, producing large-scale prints eerily still and devoid of people, and Christian Milovanoff has captured the recurring details of a museum collection, photographing the hands and feet of figures in Old Master paintings and bas-reliefs.
The Newport Museum Postcard Museum comprises over three hundred inkjet photographs of the displays and signage at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery, a regional public museum in Gwent, South East Wales. The museum boasts an extensive collection of paintings, watercolours and prints. Works by established artists such as Stanley Spencer, L. S. Lowry and Ceri Edwards, hang alongside those of local artists such as painter James Flewitt Mullock. The museum also holds large collections of ceramics, craft and archaeological finds, most of which trace the social and political history of rural and industrial South Wales from its very early development. There are two important bequests: the Fox Collection, a display of pottery and porcelain, and the Wait Collection comprising domestic novelty and craft teapots. As with many British provincial museums, the displays are curious; large glass fronted cabinets containing pots, jars, books and statuettes; dioramas of shop interiors, a pub, a surgery and domestic living quarters.
Djerejian's photographs of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery collection are postcard-sized, measuring just 4 x 6 or 5 x 7 inches. Each image has been printed to resemble the postcard souvenirs that we find in most gallery or museum bookshops. In the studio, Djerejian has installed the photographs as an assemblage or 'collection' of objects; they rest side by side on small wooden ledges, each one occupying its own small amount of space. There are several rows, one on top of the other. The photographs are placed randomly, in no particular order, and their presentation immediately invites comparison with the displays of stacked postcards in museum and gallery bookshops. However, unlike these mass-produced cards which copy innumerable images of oil paintings, portrait busts and Greek vases, Djerejian's photographs re-present the objects and artworks as a series of close-ups and details.
Djerejian provides us with snapshot-like glimpses of selected objects, display labels and directional signage from the different sections of the museum. The images document the detail from wide range of accessions. A propelling pencil - a commemorative object from the 1930s - embossed on its side with 'The Rotary Club of Newport' is photographed in isolation on a rich blue background. A metal plaque etched with names inscribed in script reflects the objects around it, their shapes caught in its shiny surface, abstracted and de-contextualised. A silver frame reflects the contours of the room in which it is situated. Ornate broaches arranged on a glass shelf, float above a teapot. The dainty legs and gold shoes of a porcelain figurine extend out from under a crocheted skirt which forms the base of a tea cosy. A shiny brass doorknob reveals the image of the photographer reflected in its surface. Painted eyes, a mouth, an artist's signature, the edge of an ornate gilt frame are extracted from their source. Djerejian is invariably drawn to the detail, the play of light on surfaces, the different materials and textures, the peculiar arrangement of objects in the display cases. Her images capture the reflections of glass, the raised surfaces of impasto paint on canvas and delicately stitched embroidery of a sampler.
Djerejian's photographs of the labels and signage in the museum not only draw our attention to the systems of display operating in these spaces, but also to the quirky titles and descriptions that help us read and interpret an object. One such detail, a caption, recounts a short poem 'Mountain Sheep are sweeter / But Valley Sheep are fatter / We therefore deem it meeter / To cultivate the Latter', but we can only imagine what it accompanies - a painting of prized livestock? or an agricultural display? Another extended caption explains the provenance of a miner's lamp which was damaged in a roof-fall at a colliery. Other images provide us with further interpretations and histories. By photographing these signs as objects, Djerejian elevates them to the level of the artwork.
In presenting these photographs together as a collection, Djerejian invites us to reflect upon our own experiences as museum or gallery visitors. As we walk around the spaces of these institutions, our viewing is selective, we are guided by our curiosity, and are often drawn to that which is familiar. The quality and duration of our encounters with the different objects and artworks on display may be determined by our interest and the level of our engagement. In her photographs, Djerejian emphasises what she refers to as 'the subjective, personal nature of the experience of looking at art’. Through the the use of such devices as oblique perspective, cropping, close-up camera work or narrow points of focus, she playfully imitates a snatched or fleeting look or a sideways glance but also the more intimate inspection of an object. We are provided with brief, often incomplete descriptions, visual clues.
In her final writings on photography, Susan Sontag proposed that 'Photography is, first of all a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself', and further that the photograph is 'a fragment-a glimpse' which we each accumulate.* Djerejian's images of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery provide us with hundreds of these 'fragments' or 'glimpses' which on viewing give us knowledge of and access to the objects in the collection. Djerejian uses her photography as a means to investigate how we engage with these objects, how we examine and appreciate their materiality and detail, and in doing so, provides us with a record of her own experiences and encounters as a museum visitor. We are presented with a fascinating assemblage of photographs which, when juxtaposed, create new narratives and novel connections, fuelling the imagination of the viewer.
*Susan Sontag, Photography: A Little Summa in At the Same Time, Penguin Books, London, 2007, pp. 124-126.
Emma Dean is a Curator and Exhibitions Organiser based in Oxford and Milton Keynes, UK.