Why Grayson Perry’s British Museum show is sensational
There are eight million objects in the British Museum. Which mean the most to you?
This is a question answered by Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry in his new show, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, opening later this week. Perry was given his pick of the museum’s collection and over the course of two years whittled his favourite 1,000 objects down to 170.
His starting point was the kind of themes he likes to explore in his work – pilgrimage, craftsmanship, sexuality and gender… So in a way he operated in the opposite direction to most artists who are invited to respond to a museum’s collection. And he chose objects which responded to his work, rather than the other way round.
So we find pilgrim souvenirs such as modern badges and medieval lead-alloy brooches, a 250,000-year-old flint hand-axe, folk costumes, a Russian icon and even a Hello Kitty hand towel.
But as well as choosing artefacts from the museum’s collection, Perry has also produced his own new work inspired by the collection, such as the title piece, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a monumental cast-iron sculpture in the form of a ship, cleverly referencing the museum’s collection, much of which comes from tombs and was created by unknown artists, whilst also cheekily drawing attention to Perry’s own status as a major art-world celebrity – a status presumably crucial to his invitation to curate the show.
Of course, by now it’s a long-standing convention for a museum or gallery to invite a contemporary artist to respond to and interact with its collection. But it’s become much more popular over the last few years as there’s been an increased focus on opening up our museums to wider audiences.
So The National Gallery and the V&A have both tried it – as has the British Museum, albeit on a much smaller scale to this new show. The appeal is quite simple – this kind of initiative is a highly effective way of giving a collection which can seem old and fusty a contemporary relevance and making it feel very much alive.
But there’s another point to be made here. Inviting contemporary artists like Grayson Perry to curate a show predominantly made up of objects from the British Museum’s collection is also representative of a new focus on the role of the curator which has been sweeping museums and galleries for the last few years. These days, a definitive detailing of information about an exhibit is often seen as less important than individual interpretation – for better or worse.
One of the most effective shows I’ve seen in recent weeks was Cornelia Parker’s selection and display of works from the Government Art Collection at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London. By settling on a colour-coded selection and display, Parker delivers a stunning and totally unique show which is very much informed by her own sensibility as an artist. And it’s hard to think of a more straight, less curator-led approach being half as effective.
But it has to be said that there’s a downside to this fashion to focus on the curator. Much of the criticism of the recent Modern British Sculpture show at the Royal Academy and the Miró exhibition at Tate Modern centred on both shows being too curator-led – at the expense of the work itself.
In the case of Modern British Sculpture, the title suggested a definitive overview of the form when instead what we were given was the no less fascinating take of the two curators – but one which left many visitors feeling cheated by the many omissions in the supposed survey. And in the case of the Miró, many critics felt that a heavy focus on the perceived political motivation behind the work was at times laboured – and didn’t allow the work to speak for itself.
On the other hand, maybe a sharper focus on the curatorial voice is simply more honest – as an exhibition can only ever be the product of one (or two) individual’s choices and tastes. And in the case of the Grayson Perry show, concentrating on the way that an artist rather than an expert interacts with a collection sends out a clear message to the viewer.
Not only does it tell us that what we’re experiencing here is the product of Perry’s inner world – but that our own inner worlds matter too. And that we shouldn’t be afraid of following through or even expressing our own personal and inevitably subjective responses to the work. Particularly as Perry’s own personality is such a strong and unavoidable presence throughout the show.
The overall effect is an empowerment of the viewer – made all the more impactful by the fact that the exhibition is taking place in one of our most revered institutions, the British Museum, which is often seen as an unassailable bastion of high culture and learning.
As the artist himself told me earlier today, “Big institutions like this can be very intimidating. People think there’s a right way and everything in them has got to be good and correct and true. And I want to say, your opinion counts too. Of course there are experts, but you don’t have to like everything, you don’t have to agree with everything, you can make your own choices, your own world, your own culture out of it.”
Hopefully, visitors to The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen will come out of the exhibition not just thinking that they’ve seen a sensational show – which it is. But they’ll also come out thinking about which of the British Museum’s eight million objects they would have selected for their own exhibition. If they do, then the exhibition really will have succeeded.
Follow Matthew Cain on Twitter