British Museum blog

Voices of the British Museum

Liam O’Connor, artist

I am creating an archive of audio interviews with the staff of the British Museum, the subject of which is a museum object or space they have developed a significant personal connection with as part of their work.

'WCEC Excavation' 2012 © Liam O'Connor

‘WCEC Excavation’ 2012 © Liam O’Connor

Between 2010 and 2014 I was artist in residence on the construction of the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, a new building at the British Museum. Although my efforts were focused on the building site, I also received a privileged insight into the workings of the place through conversations with a wide variety of people who work at the Museum.

My understanding of particular objects and spaces around the Museum has been greatly enriched by talking to the people who have invested time and emotion in them. I am intrigued by how these objects and spaces that belong to everyone seem to bear a great significance to certain individuals, and believe the stories of how and why are important to capture.

The British Museum, as an idea, is a place where a diverse range of people are brought together for a common purpose, a place and a collection that has endured through many generations of staff and visitors, it is a collection and a building that weaves all those generations together.

The objects and spaces of the Museum are vessels for meaning and memory; they are constantly being adopted into new narratives by staff and visitors. The aim of these interviews is to reveal the small memories, invested in the museum and its collection, that overlap and sustain this fantastic institution through generations reaching back into the past and forward into the future.

Internally, among staff I have discovered a tradition of stories being passed from previous generations to the present – characters and events long since gone are still present within the Museum. It would be amazing if in fifty or a hundred years from now a conservator, curator, security guard could listen to the person give an account of working on that same object or within that same space from today.

Painting on silk showing Buddha (probably Śākyamuni) preaching in a Paradise composition. From the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. Tang Dynasty, c. AD 701-750 (1919,0101,0.6)

Painting on silk showing Buddha (probably Śākyamuni) preaching in a Paradise composition. From the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. Tang Dynasty, 8th century (1919,0101,0.6)

The voice is important in this project; the voice of an individual is much more captivating and engaging than a written text, and somehow more immediate than a video combining sight and sound.

The background sounds also provide another layer; the secret door in the Enlightenment Gallery creaking open in Bryony Shepherd’s interview, and the rolling rack revealing the painting in Clarissa von Spee’s interview. These all start to contribute to a soundscape that is another layer in describing the British Museum. This is something I didn’t think about until I started listening back to the interviews; for me this is an exciting discovery.

As part of the interview, I also want to capture the journey that lead each person to working at the Museum. I want to understand the diversity of paths that all lead to the same place. I arrived here purely by chance, approaching the Museum to ask if I could study their building site, I didn’t have any ideas to investigate the Museum itself, but I have received an invaluable education from the place purely through talking to people who work here, it is their enthusiasm for their subjects and objects that has encouraged and strengthened my own enthusiasm for the place.

Door panels and lintel  from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

Door panels and lintel from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

I like exploring the rituals, patterns and the accumulation of time that bind us to objects and places in physical and imagined ways. This takes the form of revealing meaning or narratives that individuals project onto spaces and objects that otherwise remain hidden to everyone else.

I invest huge amounts of time in single objects or drawings or spaces as part of my work, this repeated attention shown to something creates a deep bond that is hugely important in placing memory and meaning in something physical. I also make drawings and objects that are only the trace or evidence of the actual work, where the work exists in the story of how the object was made or the performance/investment of time in making it.

The Museum’s objects, as beautiful and magnificent as they are, will always rely heavily on the devotion of the people who work with them day to day, the energy they invest in them is infectious, bringing them to life for the rest of us.

I have only recently begun this project, so far I have 10 interviews, but I want to collect many more. I hope this project will provide a rich archive of material for the Museum, which will become more interesting over time, as the Museum changes, but also the interviews are individual pieces of storytelling that could provide an alternative audio guide for museum visitors, that further enrich the mythology of the British Museum.

Room 1: Enlightenment Gallery

Room 1: Enlightenment Gallery

Voices of the British Museum is being hosted on the British Museum’s Soundcloud channel, where you can find recordings of events, Audio Descriptions, and other audio.

Liam O’Connor (@liamoconnor919) is currently artist in residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, making work in response to their Exhibition Road Building Project.

Filed under: At the Museum, , ,

Documenting the Museum’s changing landscape

Liam O’Connor, artist

'WCEC Excavation' 2012 © Liam O'Connor

‘WCEC Excavation’ 2012 © Liam O’Connor

The World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, view from Senate House

The World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, view from Senate House

Over the past four years I have been making work in response to a building site at the British Museum that has now become the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

I see the building site as an island within the city, a territory relinquished in one form waiting to be claimed in/by another.

I have been privileged to explore this transforming landscape and have attempted to describe it, or allow it to describe itself, through the objects and drawings I have made. The work explores the process of imposing order on the landscape and its objects, the end point of which is the completed structure of the building.

Over the course of three and a half years I worked on a single drawing of the site. From a fixed vantage point above the site, I observed the entire transformation of the space from demolition through to excavation and construction. In a weekly ritual I returned to this same view and added to the drawing as new forms emerged on site. Over time this developed into a memoir to the building process. The Museum documented the stages of this drawing through a series of photographs.

For me the most compelling part of the building process was the excavation, which saw the entire site cleared to four stories below street level. I have always been drawn to these huge spaces which temporarily open up in London, into which new buildings are to be placed. They are architectural events in themselves, for a brief moment a huge expanse appears within the densely packed London streets. In response to the epic excavation I made two pieces of work, the first of which was this large, three meter wide drawing, in an attempt to capture the cinematic quality of the spectacle.

Click on any of the thumbnails to view as a full screen slideshow.
All images © Liam O’Connor

The second piece came out of a body of work I had been making on site, for which I collected marks left on surfaces through rubbings, prints and photograms; collecting moments I saw as drawings. The site is continually producing images of itself; dirt, mud, clay and rust are dragged across its surfaces or are themselves surfaces onto which marks can be made. After watching thousands of lorries leave the site filled with clay, I wanted to join the clay on its journey, so I asked if I could sit in one of the lorries to see where it went. I also asked if I could place some boards in the back of the lorry, on which clay could be placed on top to create a drawing which could be reclaimed at the end of the journey, at the rubbish tip. The builders were happy to facilitate my experiments with, as they always were throughout the project. I had been exploring ways of using the materials, processes and tools on site to make drawings, and I saw this piece as a successful outcome of that process as it was made by a telescopic digger, a lorry and a bulldozer.

Click on any of the thumbnails to view as a full screen slideshow.
All images © Liam O’Connor

The final piece of work I made was a modern medal. Philip Attwood, Keeper of the Department of Coins & Medals, introduced me to the Museum’s modern medal collection, and, impressed by these objects, I wanted to make something in response. I was interested in the repetitious activities on the site, such as the picking up and putting down of clay or the construction of steel cages to reinforce the concrete, as the same process seemed to result in a slightly different outcome each time, a unique result. I had also been working a lot with objects taken from the site rather than making my own. With these two ideas in mind, Willie Shaw of Mace, the main contractor, donated a crane lifting chain, and PAD contractors separated the chain into its 800 individual links and stamped each one with a commemorative mark I had designed.

Once the building is complete all these medals will be displayed temporarily and each of the people who have worked on the project will choose a medal from this display, so the piece of work will disperse among everyone who has contributed to the building project.

Every Saturday in June a display of the work I have made will be open to the public. The works have all been tailor-made for the museum cabinets in this secret gallery usually closed off from public view. This room has always been important to me; on one side is the building site and on the other the Museum, for me it became a studio space where the influence of both cultures began to emerge within the work that I made.


See a selection of Liam’s work on display in the WCEC Model room, located off Room 66 on Level 3 of the Museum.
To find out more about Liam O’Connor’s work, visit liamoconnor.co.uk

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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