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.
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.
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?