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.

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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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