A storehouse like no other, a museum summons objects and concerns from both past and present. The unfortunate reality is that, once collected, it doesn’t matter if the objects are important or trivial. Once bought or donated, the objects are catalogued and placed in the storehouse, rarely seeing the light of day. It’s a sad, lonely life for most of the museum’s collection. The only company found is with specialists, who visit when they want something out of an object.
One way of considering the meaning hidden in a collection is to open it to an artist. Of course, by allowing these creators access to your stacks, you allow them to consider your museum’s position within the community of museums. The latent desires of the past reveal themselves as current realities. Like mirrors, a museum’s various collections reflect our personal and social spirit. It’s a brave decision to reverse the reflecting surface inward, showing what the museum has become and what it has accumulated over time.
Following this logic, The Peabody Essex Museum commissioned the FreePort series, an ongoing exhibition series installed within the museum’s permanent displays. In October of 2010, Charles Sandison‘s projected installation, FreePort [No.001] or Figurehead, launched the series. Sandison began by studying the PEM library’s collection of captain’s logs, and produced a lengthy, computer-based text that was projected in the East India Marine Hall (one of the oldest parts of the museum). Sandison’s projected text circulated around the room, moving in computer-controlled flows that forced viewers to try to find sense in an immersive environment of words. Even though Sandison didn’t express any value judgements, the piece was a chaotic report on what texts the museum finds most important.
This past March, Marianne Mueller, a Swiss artist known for her formal photographic explorations, installed the second FreePort work: FreePort [No. 002], or Any House Is a Home. Her vigorous engagement with PEM’s collection resulted in a installation of forty-one of Mueller’s photos, three new video portraits, very specific paint colors in blocks on the wall, and over 150 objects and images from PEM. An exacting installation layered with possible meanings, opposition is the first theme that jumps out. Objects are placed in relation to each other, forcing comparisons to be made between them. Even the painted walls are alive with polarities: sometimes the paint color matches the art work, while at other times the color opposes the chosen object.
Mueller hopes that these relationships are formally exciting, instead of connotative and bound with personal narrative. One of the more successful moments is a pair of especially rare elastic chairs by the eighteenth-century furniture maker Samuel Gragg, placed back to back in a display case from the early 1900s. Their formal qualities, including the curved motion of their backs, are enhanced by this display. The display case surrounds them and becomes a likeness of the museum that holds and collects. The case, purchased for the protection of the chairs, is presented as a piece in the museum’s collection. The protection becomes as much the subject as the object on display.
Mueller has added a personal theme that connects to her own career by creating an extensive photographic archive. The home and house, an emotional connection to a space, comes from a shared history with a space as much as anything else. Mueller’s intention to create an “open-ended associative field rather than a narrative” fights against this notion. Her intention to “liberate objects from history” and bring them into the present questions the authority of the museum to map and define the objects in their care via a historical timeline or a specifically defined function. This is as true for the museum as it is for Mueller’s personal archive of photographs; her artistic home. Her years of engaging with her own personal archive allows her intense insights into the museum’s archive that may be overlooked by other artists who are invited to respond to the museum’s collection.
Also currently on display is FreePort [No.003], a sound piece and installation from Susan Philipsz. Philipsz chose to sing a ballad from a book of English and Scottish ballads in the PEM collection. “The House Carpenter’s Wife (The Daemon Lover),” tells the story of a man who returns home from the sea after a long absence to find his former lover with a husband and a child. The eight parts of this installation riff off of the figureheads and portraits of old captains in the East India Marine Hall, bringing the objects’ hidden narratives to the fore.
Freeport [No. 002], by Marianne Mueller, is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, through December 31, 2011. Freeport [No. 003], by Susan Philipsz, is on view through November 1, 2011. Freeport [No. 004], by Peter Hutton, will be on view from September 1, 2011, through December 31, 2011.