British Museum blog

Selecting objects, X Factor style

Eleanor Bradshaw, Assistant Curator

As part of the first cohort of Inspire curating MA students at the Royal College of Art, I have had the unique opportunity to work at the British Museum for the last two years, and my time is finally coming to an end! The Art Council’s Inspire programme is unique in that it is a course aimed at BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnics) in an attempt to diversity the arts and cultural heritage workforce, hoping to bring with it some different outlooks, perceptions and ideas.

Throughout the lead up to the exhibition Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (which was an incredibly tight eight months) I was heavily involved with the initial curation and planning of the exhibition, as well as working closely with Grayson himself in selecting nearly 200 British Museum objects to go on display. Grayson planned on displaying about 30 of his own works which he wanted to sit – sometimes in juxtaposition and sometimes in harmony – with objects from the Museum collection.

Before we met, Grayson had taken photographs of over 900 objects from the collection, which he brought to me in a Tupperware box. These ranged from miniature Japanese pocket shrines to large Chinese tomb bricks and prints of the infamous transvestite Chevalier d’Eon.


A Ghanaian Asafo banner in the British Museum collection

Together, we decided it would be sensible to cull the photographs (and therefore objects) down to about 200 so they would actually fit in the exhibition space. Grayson decided he would play the role of Simon Cowell, so luckily that made me Cheryl. The selection process was truly fascinating to watch. Grayson chose many of the objects because they referenced his own works beautifully. For example, an Asafo banner connects really well with his tapestry Hold Your Beliefs Lightly. Also included in the exhibition are some late seventeenth century German stoneware jugs, which could almost be mistaken for his own ceramic pieces.

Grayson Perry, Hold Your Beliefs Lightly, 2011. © Grayson Perry

Objects were also chosen in relation to certain elements or themes of the exhibition, such as pilgrimage and the craftsman. In some cases he did not choose an object based on the aesthetic, for example the Department of Prints and Drawings has several maps of Pilgrims Progress but Grayson chose his least favourite and the least decorative simply because visually it was easier for the audience to decipher. Conversely some objects were chosen because they were purely spectacular, such as the ornate gold ceremonial headdress from Ghana.

Once selected, I had the daunting task of locating all 200 objects. Luckily, Grayson has almost total recall and could remember what every single object was, what department it was from and if not the name of the curator responsible, then whether or not they had a beard!

Throughout the selection process, many people have questioned why a contemporary artist like Grayson Perry would want to do an exhibition at the British Museum. I think this provokes a very interesting question: can the contemporary and the historical speak intimately to each other and create an interesting dialogue, or should they be kept apart?

Grayson Perry takes you behind the scenes of the making of this exhibition in a new BBC documentary. Come along to free screenings at the Museum on 10 November or 1 December 2011.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. David Samila says:

    This is a fascinating account of your experience working with Grayson Perry, particularly how you describe the process of choosing pieces for the exhibition.

    Like

  2. Pearl Stanley says:

    I can’t wait to see this exhibiion.

    Like

  3. emmalbetts says:

    Thanks for the interesting blog post, Can’t wait to visit this exhibition.

    Like

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Discover some of the amazing wearable treasures in our new #Waddesdon gallery on @Pinterest at pinterest.com/britishmuseum
The Grenville Jewel. Dating from about 1635–1640, this superb locket contains a portrait by David Des Granges of Sir Bevil Grenville, a Cornish Royalist General who died during the English Civil War in 1643. The case is a bravura demonstration of enamelling on gold. Minute pansies, marguerites and green leaves stand out against a black background. A large square sapphire adorns the centre, surrounded by rubies, opals and diamonds. A pendant pearl in an enamelled setting completes the piece.
Gold enamelled pendant jewel with a ruby-studded parrot. The top of the base is enamelled with shields and flowers. Two pendant pearls complete the jewel. The parrot itself may have 16th-century Spanish origins, but the rest of the jewel is largely a 19th-century construction by the French jeweller Alfred André (1839–1919). A similar parrot pendant is in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid, where the bird is also modelled in the round and white enamel used to highlight the eyes. Here's another great photo from our instagramer event, a #tired_portrait in the Great Court by @zoecaldwell.
Check out #emptyBM to see all their amazing photos! US artist John Sloan was born #onthisday in 1871. 
John Sloan, painter, printmaker and teacher, first took up etching as a self-taught adolescent.  Moving to New York in 1904, he became part of a group of eight artists, better known as “The Ashcan School”, who focused on creating images of urban realism. Between 1891 and 1940 Sloan produced some 300 etchings. He was also one of the first chroniclers of the American scene and wrote about printmaking and the etching technique.
This etching comes from the series of 10 prints entitled 'New York City Life', recording the lives of the ordinary inhabitants in less affluent areas of Manhattan. The prints had a mixed reception at the time and a number were rejected from an exhibition of the American Watercolor Society as ‘vulgar’ and ‘indecent’. #August is named after the Roman emperor Augustus. Before 8 BC the Romans called it Sextilis! 
This head once formed part of a statue of the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BC – AD 14). In 31 BC he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium and took possession of Egypt, which became a Roman province. The writer Strabo tells us that statues of Augustus were erected in Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and that an invading Kushite army looted many of them in 25 BC.
Although Roman counter-attackers reclaimed many of the statues, they did not reach Meroë, where this head was buried beneath the steps of a native temple dedicated to Victory. It seems likely that the head, having been cut from its statue, was placed there deliberately so as to be permanently below the feet of its Meroitic captors.
The head of Augustus appears larger than life, with perfect proportions based upon Classical Greek notions of ideal human form. His calm distant gaze, emphasised with inset eyes of glass and stone, give him an air of quiet, assured strength. Coins and statues were the main media for propagating the image of the Roman emperor. This statue, like many others throughout the Empire, was made as a continuous reminder of the all-embracing power of Rome and its emperor. English sculptor Henry Moore was born #onthisday in 1898.
Drawing played a major role in Henry Moore's work throughout his career. He used it to generate and develop ideas for sculpture, and to create independent works in their own right.
During the 1930s the range and variety of his drawing expanded considerably, starting with the 'Transformation Drawings' in which he explored the metamorphosis of natural, organic shapes into human forms. At the end of the decade he began to focus on the relationship between internal and external forms, his first sculpture of this nature being 'Helmet' (Tate Collections) of 1939.
This drawing titled ‘Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal’ was based on a pencil study entitled ‘Ideas for Lead Sculpture’. It reflects his awareness of surrealism and psychoanalytical theory as well his abiding interest in ethnographic material and non-European sculpture; the particular reference in this context is to a malangan figure (malangan is a funeral ritual cycle) from New Ireland province in Papua New Guinea, which had attracted his interest in the British Museum. 
Henry Moore, Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal. England, 1939. Here's another fabulous view of the Great Court captured by @whatinasees at our instagramer event #regram #repost
Check out all of the photos at #emptyBM
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