The Museum of Found Objects – Sameer Farooq & Mirjam Linschooten
Below are images from Sameer Farooq & Mirjam Linschooten’s The Museum of Found Objects: Istanbul (2010) and The Museum of Found Objects: Toronto (2011).
The text is: Endnotes: Annotations to the Museum of Found Objects which was published in Sameer Farooq & Mirjam Linschooten’s Toronto publication written by Haema Sivanesan curator and current Executive Director at Centre A (Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art), and past Executive Director at SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre). The text clearly contextualizes and draws theoretical connections about and between both projects.
1. The Museum of Found Objects (Museum of Found Objects) is a “pop-up museum”, the idea of which is a paradox.
2. The Museum of Found Objects is a collection of contemporary cultural artefacts that only exists as a collection for a short period of time.
3. This museum does not have a fixed building or exhibition space. It is not a repository, and its contents are regularly dispersed so that the museum itself is ephemeral.
4. If a museum is generally understood as an “institution that houses and cares for [curates] a collection of artefacts and other objects of scientific, artstic, or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing…” [“Museum" – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Accessed July 15, 2011], The Museum of Found Objects challenges assumptions about what constitutes the artistic or historical artefact and how their importance is defined or canonised by the historiographic, anthropological or scientific underpinnings of the museum. It reflects on history formalistically and insofar that the institution of the museum is itself a construct of a history that requires critical attention.
5. The objects in The Museum of Found Objects are typically ordinary objects in everyday circulation. These objects may not have a ready cultural value, or be traditionally considered as objects of aesthetic or critical contemplation. The Museum of Found Objects thereby examines the means by which objects acquire value.
6. The Museum of Found Objects is a formal setting for the display of selected everyday objects. The collections of The Museum of Found Objects seek to reflect on the quotidian experiences of increasingly consumerist, rapidly globalising urban societies. The collections of The Museum of Found Objects are not intended to be definitive, but they evoke hidden or unexpected aspects of a place or city.
7. As a series of documented collections, The Museum of Found Objects is an artistic intervention. It does not propose to reinvent the museum, instead it is a provocation — to both the museum and it’s audiences.
8. The Museum of Found Objects subverts the “aura” and authority of the museum setting to challenge how knowledge about culture is constructed and canonised by the institution of the museum. [“Museums were housed in palatial or temple-like structures that made the man on the street feel uncomfortable and discouraged his attendance…” Mary Alexander and Edward Porter Alexander Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums (Plymouth: AltaMira Press, 2008), 9.]
9. The Museum of Found Objects examines the criteria by which cultural objects are ascribed a value, asking audiences to recognise that the value and meaning of objects are not fixed or static, that culture is dynamic and part of our everyday lives. [See for example, Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), where Appadurai argues that the meaning of objects is relative and acquired through processes of social negotiation: “value … is never an inherent property of objects but a judgement made about them by subjects”, p3. Richard Davis, The Lives of Indian Images (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999) who demonstrates, by tracing the ‘biographies’ of objects, how the meanings of certain objects have changed over the course of history according to social, political and economic factors.]
10. The Museum of Found Objects proposes a notion of the museum as a site of dynamic exchange and active participation where the objects themselves situate social and discursive exchanges. [“By thinking of their missions as contact work — decentred and traversed by cultural and political negotiations that are out of any imagined community's control - museums may begin to grapple with the real difficulties of dialogue, alliance, inequality and translation.” James Clifford, ed., ‘Museums as Contact Zones’ in Routes, Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), 192.]
11. The Museum of Found Objects proposes that a sense of wonder can emerge from our everyday experiences. This proposition owes a legacy to the French thinker Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) who theorised the notion of the quotidian as an ontological category. As well as to the Situationists who formulated a methodology of dérive to consciously encounter and experience the varied ambiences of the urban landscape. And to Michel de Certeau who examined the individualised experience of urban forms and mass culture. While these theoretical discourses, which have ready currency amongst artists, lay the groundwork for Museum of Found Objects’ work [See for example Stephen Johnstone, The Everyday. (London and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Whitechapel and The MIT Press, 2008) or Jonathan Watkins, Every Day (Sydney: Biennale of Sydney, 1998)], the project also draws out a set of problematics related to the role of museums in a post-colonial era. [See for example, Moira G Simpson, Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era, (London: Routledge, 1996).]
12. The Museum of Found Objects examines and critiques the museological paradigm and the apparent authority with which it represents cultures — specifically non-western cultures that have known a history of colonisation and their problematic relationship to the authoritative, indeed colonising, framework of the museum. In this sense The Museum of Found Objects problematises the Eurocentricism underlying the institution of the museum, seeking to unsettle and thereby critique its colonising authority. [“Society will no longer tolerate institutions that either in fact or in appearance serve a minority audience of the elite” Duncan F. Cameron, Director of The Brooklyn Museum quoted in Simpson, Making Representations, 7.]
13. Yet The Museum of Found Objects seeks to restore the sense of wonder associated with nineteenth- century cabinets of curiousities (eg the wunderkammer or ajaib ghar), capturing the imagination of visitors and inspiring a sense of discovery. The Museum of Found Objects describes the potential of museums as being one to inspire the imagination of visitors. It critiques the didacticism of museums, and invites inventive and creative modes of knowledge exchange. [See Stephen Greenblatt “Resonance and Wonder” in Ivan Karp and Steven Levine Exhibiting Cultures (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 42-53. See also John Walsh, Director Emeritus, J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, addresses this aspect of museum experience through a reading of James Elkins book, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, in the essay “Pictures, Tears, Lights, and Seats” in Whose Muse: Art Museums and the Public Trust, ed. James Cuno, ed., (Princeton and Oxford, and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Princeton University Press and Harvard University Art Museums, 2004), 77-101.]
14. In Toronto, The Museum of Found Objects was presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario and was developed in response to a major blockbuster exhibition that was concurrently on view. This exhibition titled Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts was co-organised by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It examined the history of the Indian sub-continent through some 200+ objects produced under the patronage of India’s kings. Ironically, the objects were drawn in large part from British collections. Many of the works in the Maharaja exhibition came from the collections of the East India Company which acquired vast quantities of artefacts from the sub-continent. The East India Company’s collections were housed at The India Museum (East India House) on Leadenhall Street, London until it was demolished in 1863. Much of the collection was subsequently accessioned into the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museums. [Jonathan Jones provides an evocative account of the collections of the Indian Museum. See Jonathan Jones, “Fugitive Pieces” in The Guardian, September 25, 2003. [Accessed July 23, 2011.]
15. The history of the museum as a public institution parallels the colonisation of India and has a long history in the sub-continent. The Indian Museum in Kolkata is the ninth oldest museum in the world and was established by the Asiatic Society, Bengal in 1814. Other early museums include: Government Museum, Chennai (1851), Bombay Natural History Museum, (1883), Lahore Museum, (1894). This history is closely associated with the colonial survey of the sub-continent, with many museums in India being a legacy of this colonial history. These museums are typically presented as repositories of archaeological and antiquarian remains. [Refer, for example, to the website of the Archaeological Survey of India] However, as Tapati Guha-Thakurta notes, museums also became co-opted into the rhetoric of Indian nationalism. Guha-Thakurta maps the emergence of this nationalism, which was closely tied to the writing of an Indian art history, and which was also inherently orientalist in the sense that it was formed in response to the colonial construct of India by an English-educated Indian (Bengali) middle class elite. [See Tapati Guha-Thakurta, The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal (Cambridge University Press, 1992). and Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post-Colonial India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).] Thus, the collection and display of objects as a means to convey knowledge about India has a long and complex history. [For a discussion on museum building as a modernist project in India see Kavita Singh, ‘A History of Now’ in Art India June 2010, volume XV, issue 1: 26-33.]
16. The narrative of the Maharaja exhibition celebrated the opulence of India’s rulers, describing art as a product of royal patronage but also showing how aesthetic power or value was determined by the structures of imperialism. Under the patronage of kings, art was a political tool that asserted status and authority. The exhibition examined a complex and pivotal period of world history, which ultimately resulted in the formation of India and Pakistan as independent nation states, a tumultuous period that brought India into its modernity. However the exhibition as a format for the presentation of this kind of history aestheticises a violent, despotic and traumatic period. Moreover, it presents an elite and Anglocentric narrative that prompts us to consider how this history is as much Britain’s history as it is India’s.
17. Additionally, presenting the Maharaja exhibition in Canada in turn makes assumptions about Canadian — and specifically Indo-Canadian — audiences and their relationship to this colonial history. Second generation and diasporic Indians are often estranged from a critical understanding of this history of India, as well as recent debates that have focussed on “nationalising” this history. [See for example a discussion on the BBC website] Their relationship to these types of exhibitions, like that of non-South Asian visitors, is largely voyeuristic. [Voyeurism as a mode of visual consumption in the context of ‘World Art’ is discussed by Griselda Pollock, ‘Un-Framing the Modern: Critical Space/Public Possibility’ in Museums After Modernism: Strategies of Engagement, ed. Griselda Pollock and Joyce Zemans, (Maldon, Massachusetts, Oxford, UK and Victoria, Australia: BlackwellPublishing, 2007, 15.]
18. How, then, do museums manipulate notions of cultural pride and nostalgia in outreaching to culturally marginalised communities? Can museums go beyond the tokenisms of multiculturalism?
19. And how are “westernised” South Asians — anxious to find a sense of belonging in their adopted countries — complicit in promoting an essentialised view of culture and history?
20. The problem of the museum, then, is a problem of representation: who is representing whom and how? Who speaks for which community and does that community in fact relate? How do museums engage communities in constructing the narratives of history that represent them? How can museum exhibitions exhibit the contingencies of history?
21. The Museum of Found Objects: Toronto (Maharaja and —) examines the everyday contexts and experiences of the South Asian community who live in towns and cities of the GTA(Greater Toronto Area): in Brampton, Mississauga, Etobicoke, Scarborough, Markham.
22. The artists scoured numerous ethnic stores and malls to identify and purchase objects of aesthetic interest:
a plastic model of the Golden Temple, Amritsar;
a make-up kit in the shape of a peacock;
boxes of Indian sweets (mithai );
a Tim Horton’s take-away coffee cup;
a fountain pen;
Fair and Handsome whitening cream;
an ice scraper;
tin foil roasting pans and pie plates;
a bag of gram flour.
23. Placed on pedestals and in museum vitrines, visitors to The Museum of Found Objects are invited to look closely at the everyday objects on display and to reflect on their cultural value. The Museum of Found Objects draws on a kitsch design aesthetic and sense of humour to engage visitors. But it also develops this audience’s relationship to the museum through objects that are familiar and have ready associations and meanings. The use of humour is disarming, and a constructive tool in appealing to audiences that may be intimidated by the museum setting.
24. The artists’ state: “Everyday objects give us the ability to see things in a different way. They are accessible, unpretentious, and from the surface can reach deep into the hidden undercurrents of a place.”
25. Everyday objects provide not only an insight into the consumer tastes and spending habits of the South Asian community in the GTA, but describe the unique character — the resourcefulness, adaptability and syncretism of this community. The objects reflect on issues of class, economic status, social aspiration and nostalgia, as well as examining the terms of globalisation and popular visual culture.
26. The selection of objects was based on a series of informal, social interactions that shaped the artists’ understanding of the community. Some of this “research” was recorded in the various interpretive labels. For example a label accompanying a primary school issue woodwind recorder states, “RM still has performance anxiety from his parents demanding that he play music in front of visiting guests at every occasion.”
Or a label related to a pair of yellow plastic bridal sandals states, “AF tossed her sandals in the closet knowing that she would probably never wear them again. She grimaced as she remembered that IP had a red carpet walk at her wedding.”
A display of immaculate Tupperware bears the label, “It has been ten years and JM’s mother is still asking for her good Tupperware back.”
Critiquing the scientific objectivity of ethnographic methodologies, The Museum of Found Objects uses humour to reflect on social interactions, communal aspirations and values. [“…irreverence reminds us that museums are inventions of men…” Adele Silver, Cleveland Museum of Art educator (1979), quoted in Alexander and Alexander, Museums in Motion, 12.] The subjective voice used in these label texts associates the objects with specific (though anonymous) personalities, situations and social values that are readily recognisable. In this way, instead of fetishising a community through its objects, this museum positions relationships, encounters and interactions. By inviting the examination of familiar objects and situations, The Museum of Found Objects elevates the status of the ordinary, immigrant, working-class experience.
27. The Museum of Found Objects promotes an egalitarian notion of the museum. It asserts the presence of a community that the museum otherwise marginalises.
28. In presenting a critique of the museum, The Museum of Found Objects situates a notion of culture as agile, dynamic, and therefore responsive and malleable to changing social, political and economic demands. The Museum of Found Objects describes culture as a site of human and collective subjectivity — readily influenced by a range of changing fashions, tastes, aesthetic, economic and technological demands. In doing so, the Museum of Found Objects advocates for the museum to be a site of dynamic social and cultural engagement and exchange.
29. On the last day of the exhibition, visitors were invited to Loot the Museum in order to disperse the The Museum of Found Objects collection. Etymologically, the word loot is derived from the Hindi, lut, meaning to plunder or pillage. Richard Davis traces a long history and culture of looting in the sub-continent as a means of signifying political victories and enhancing the status of a ruler. In the context of conflict, or between competing rulers, looting significant objects from a palace or temple was part of a strategy of shifting the centre of power. Looting recasts the symbolic significance of objects, signifying victory in warfare and the authority of a competing ruler. [See Davis, Lives of Indian Images, 51-87.]
30. The invitation to loot the collection of The Museum of Found Objects decentres its representation of the South Asian community, marking the contingencies of such a display. The act of looting restores the meaning of the objects to the individuals who acquire them, freeing meaning from the essentialising frame of the museum. Further, the invitation to loot returns these objects to the community, as a gift. Accordingly, the significance of these objects was recast according to a system of exchanges facilitated by The Museum of Found Objects project.
The Museum of Found Objects: Istanbul was in partnership with the Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture (Turkey). The Museum of Found Objects: Toronto was in partnership with SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) (Canada), and presented as part of the AGO’s Toronto Now series.
About SAVAC: Since 1993, SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) has been dedicated to the presentation and promotion of contemporary visual art by South Asian artists. SAVAC presents innovative programming, which critically explores issues and ideas shaping South Asian identities and experiences. SAVAC operates without a gallery space, but collaborates with various organizations locally, nationally and internationally, to produce exhibitions, screenings, online projects and artistic interventions.
About the Art Gallery of Ontario: With a permanent collection of more than 79,450 works of art, the Art Gallery of Ontario is among the most distinguished art museums in North America. In 2008, with a stunning new design by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, the AGO opened its doors to the public amid international acclaim. Toronto Now spotlights local artists and offers the public an opportunity to see exciting contemporary art projects free of charge. The series inhabits the Young Gallery, a free, street-level space adjacent to Frank restaurant, facing Dundas Street.
Sameer Farooq (Canada) and Mirjam Linschooten (France) collaborate on projects. Their work often (but not always) touches upon subjects of archiving, embedded power, the gap between language and object, advanced faking, site-specific reactions, sampling, continual reconsid- eration, paranoid hoarding, ordering, insider vs. outsider, class, the surface, type treatments, organization according to unidentifiable systems (and, surrealist montage procedures), reproduction and representation, the construction of meaning, the wunderkammer, newspapers, facts, ways of disseminating data into the world, fiction and non-fiction, discourse and power, digital and actual ready-mades, traces, the public, signs and the symbolic order, rewriting the present, and their work always always aims to challenge hegemony and masculinist domination!