In spring 2021, Martin Grünfeld (University of Copenhagen) and Caitlin DeSilvey (University of Exeter) began a period of virtual collaboration around their shared interest in curating decay in museum contexts, with support from the Medical Museion at The University of Copenhagen and the University of Exeter College of Life and Environmental Sciences Outward Mobility Fund. In April they were invited to speak about their project as part of a University of Heidelberg series on ‘Cultural Heritage: Emotions and Significances’ and in June they presented to members of The Future Urban Legacy Lab at the Politecnico di Torino in a lecture series on ‘Preservation and Decay’. They also gathered for a Zoom-mediated virtual tour of The Living Room, to introduce UK collaborators to the physical space and its contents. This blog post reports on their conversations so far, and flags their future plans.
First, a bit of background. We (Martin and Caitlin) met in May 2019 in Aarhus, during our participation in the Inevitable Ends conference hosted by Moesgaard Museum and Aarhus University. At the conference, Martin presented a paper on metabolic collections, speculating about the possibilities of developing a literally living collection at the museum. In conversation, we joined Martin’s speculations with Caitlin’s ideas about curating decay and formed a concrete idea about setting up a ‘compost room’ at the Medical Museion. Martin returned to the museum with these ideas and The Living Room gradually took shape. Early in 2021 we picked up the thread of our conversation and began a period of more intensive collaboration, initially conducted through a virtual lecture tour of invited ‘in conversation’ events at European universities. In these presentations, we each gave a brief introduction to our individual interests, and then shared a discussion about how we are bringing these together in The Living Room. This blog post touches on a few key themes and tensions that have emerged in our conversations so far.
Transient objects: observed vs accelerated decay
While museum practice traditionally aims to protect objects by arresting processes of decay and degradation, in her research Caitlin has demonstrated that the accommodation of material and metabolic transformation in certain contexts has the potential to enhance both cultural and ecological significance. This insight applies not only to heritage sites, but also to museum objects. Caitlin initially developed a mode of curation she describes as ‘observed decay’, grounded in a principle of non-intervention and focused on following objects and structures through natural cycles of deterioration and regeneration. This mode is attentive to the way in which certain non-human (plants, animals, fungi) assert their agency in the wake of active management, and looks to interpret their presence as illustrative of specific, entangled cultural and natural histories. In archaeological terms, this practice tracks the transformation of objects as they shed their primary identity as ‘artefact’, bearing primarily cultural meaning, to understand them also as ‘ecofacts’, originating from and returning to biotic and abiotic systems.
In The Living Room, Martin and colleagues are collaboratively exploring ways of accommodating processes of decay and hosting life at the Medical Museion. As mentioned in a previous blog post, we describe the objects we work with as fringe objects – objects residing in the margins of the museum, having been collected but never formally accessioned. These objects provide a perfect nutritive habitat for experiments in actively curating decay at the museum. Parts of our work align with Caitlin’s original conception of observed decay and intentional ‘letting be’. For example, some members of our transdisciplinary group are in the process of collecting and documenting mold growth on old film and audio reels we found in the museums’ collections. A guiding idea behind this work is the recognition that, while museum professionals would usually aim to ‘save’ the film by removing the mold, we want to allow the mold to remain part of the museum collections as an ecofact, telling us about the environment that surrounds museum objects and about the material composition of the film itself. Museum conservators are applying knowledge gained from their extensive training about degradation processes to understand, but not arrest, growth and decay.
Meanwhile, in other sub-projects we have departed from the principle of ‘letting be’ to experiment with more interventionist strategies of accelerated decay. In these experiments we explore how to actively seek release, regeneration and recomposition inside the walls of a museum. We deliberately seek to activate the metabolic disturbance of materials by bringing objects and organisms together. For example, a group of us are about to cultivate plastic-eating wax worms in a box installation consisting of plastic materials from our collection of fringe objects. We are using disposable lab equipment and sensors to measure their metabolic activity (temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, etc.) and capturing this in sound (see Eduardo’s blog post for more on the process of sonification). In another installation we are cultivating oyster mushrooms on a substrate of old medical texts. By bringing fringe objects into contact with hungry organisms, we accelerate their release and recomposition. Our experiment in ‘assisted living’ disturbs the presumed organic (and much slower) course of deterioration for these objects, but also exposes the fiction of human ‘non-intervention’ in an age of climate catastrophe.
In conversation with audiences in Heidelberg and Turin, Caitlin picked up on this last point to argue that in many ways the active, experimental mode of curation playing out in The Living Room is more honest and transparent than a mode of curation that claims to be passive, and that privileges the unfolding of ‘natural processes’. The collaboration has helped her clarify some of the weakness of her original argument, and to recognize that a stance of non-intervention is no longer viable in our altered world. The challenge, then, is to try to be precise about how different modes of care shape the world, and to experimentally seek proliferation and multiplication. In this process, multiple questions remain open for us to explore: What are the implications of letting be vs. accelerating decay at the museum? How do these different modes of curation produce different opportunities for engagement–for the museum as an institution, for museum professionals (researchers and conservators) and for the visitors experiencing a site of recomposition?
Sticky objects: on inherent and emergent significance
Another crucial point of tension that has emerged in our initial conversations is the apparent paradox that when we work with fringe objects, we potentially remove their ‘fringiness’. By granting these previously neglected things attention–including them in active installations and producing artistic works based on their recomposition – we change their status. Objects that had been overlooked and designated as excess take on new significance and meaning. In some cases, Caitlin pointed out, this shift in status, and the prospect of impending destruction, may even engender an urge to ‘save’ the object, and remove it from the experiment.
This paradoxical situation is one that we hope to explore further as the collaboration unfolds. Museums attempt to stop time and preserve the target states of historical objects because these states are perceived to have inherent significance. Inherent significance can perhaps be understood as composed of an essential aspect (linked to information about origin, use and users) and a relational aspect (uniqueness in relation to the permanent collection and historical context). In collections, conservators work to maintain the traces of the past perceived to support this inherent significance, and to erase other traces. Dirt, fingerprints, sweat, blood and other signs of use are part of what makes an object authentic and valuable. In a certain sense, it is the ‘stickiness’ of the object that determines its significance – history is woven together in the surfaces of the object granting it the capacity to ‘tell’ its life story. However, it is important to remember that even that which seems inherently significant today has developed over time through contact with users and contexts before the object was collected – even inherent significance is emergent, and the perception of inherence is sustained through processes of conservation and curation.
Significance emerges over time, and in The Living Room the significance of our fringe objects emerges in our caring and cultivation, and through artistic practices of engagement. They do not, however, gain the same historical significance as other museum objects. Rather, this emergent significance is produced through a process similar to what Kate Bowell has called ‘artistic rebirth’ or ‘cathartic destruction’, in which the object’s active alteration or destruction produces, rather than diminishes, value. Let us take an example. In the work One and No Chair by Thomas Feuerstein a wooden chair is broken down by fungi, more specifically by Serpula lacrymans – a heritage eater that often grows undetected and spreads throughout buildings (read more about his work here: https://www.thomasfeuerstein.net/50_WORKS/75_LABORATORY/82_ONE_AND_NO_CHAIR). It took Feuerstein two years to cultivate the chair and table. Then, suddenly, after two years everything changed rapidly, fruiting bodies sprouted, and the chair had to be supported statically to avoid it breaking into pieces (the table crumbled overnight). In this process, the significance of the chair emerges as it transforms and becomes a transitory object of decay.
Yet, perhaps paradoxically, the chair also becomes an object worth exhibiting, and thus preserving. After bringing the chair to the brink of collapse, Feuerstein dried it to arrest the fungi before exhibiting it. In this way, the emergent stickiness of the chair was suspended to let the valuable stickiness of the chair take precedence. This act of drying, however, sparks a provocative question: if his work is about entropy, decay and impermanence, then is the real artwork perhaps the table that collapsed overnight and could not be saved, but rather continued its lifecycle? This question is important because in The Living Room, we risk ending up where we started, wanting to preserve what we brought to life because of its emergent significance. By calling attention to the fringe object (and its fringiness) we may paradoxically raise the perception of its value and thus make it more difficult to apply alternatives to preservation. In other words, can (and should) we avoid the desire to make the emergent significance of our work stick as an inherent significance worth preserving?
If the end is the beginning, then where is the end?
In The Living Room, we reframe the end of the lifecycle of museum objects as a beginning, a beginning allowing objects to proliferate into multiple modes of existence as food, habitat, image and sound. Our collection of fringe objects is highly valuable for us, not for their historical properties or cultural value, but firstly, for their nutritional and ecological worth. We are aware this might sound a bit silly, but nutritional value becomes particularly important when we work with heritage eaters. But in our tending to the objects and our cultivation of their encounters with heritage eaters, other values are inevitably produced as well. Do we, then, end up in a similar situation to Thomas Feuerstein, seeking to dry out and stabilize our moist metabolic works, or preserve our works in other ways? In other words, how to we conceive of the end of it all?
We are still trying to figure out the implications of our work, but a tentative set of answers can perhaps help illuminate the material conditions for thinking the end – an anecdote and a location. First, an anecdote: when we developed The Living Room, we had to write a protocol which contained the condition that the objects we were working with would not be allowed to enter into the collections. We basically promised the collections manager that we wouldn’t come back later asking him to accession some of our sticky, messy, metabolic installations. Most of the objects we are working with have already been designated for disposal and destruction, so in this sense The Living Room is an elaborate detour, rather than a diversion. Second, we are located in a basement room at the museum far away from the exhibition spaces and with direct, yet limited, access for visitors from the street. At this point, there are no attempts to bring our installations into the rest of the museum (but we are working with ideas of displacements), so in a sense they (and we) remain in the margins. This means that although the objects we work with may accrue value through our experimental practices, they will remain in an ambivalent position.
This ambivalent position, however, proliferates into an ever-expanding set of questions. For example, if we take the end of the objects as a new beginning, how and where does that journey end? Can our experiments contribute to the development of new modes of disposal at the museum? What is the status of our digital documentary and creative products? Do the objects simply transform into other modes of existence that can be preserved in digital sound and image archives? Furthermore, we also have to ask ourselves what comes out of our experiments and what opportunities are produced. Can these objects provide valuable alternative experiences for visitors, and ourselves? Could decaying objects, for example, function as catalysts for engaging with difficult questions of ageing and death, or alternative kinds of memory-work? And how do we maintain a dynamic (and intermittently dangerous) workshop space while simultaneously inviting visitors in? In the end, could The Living Room develop as a contact zone with the more-than-human at the museum, unsettling human exceptionalism in a place that is otherwise exceptionally human?
So far our collaboration has led to two virtual in-conversation events and an invitation to present a third in September; we are planning a collaborative in-person presentation for the Archaeological Sensibility conference at the University of Chicago Paris Center in December. We are also in the process of making a podcast together with Bram Thomas Arnold and Eduardo Abrantes documenting some of our conversations and related work. So stay tuned for more…
August 2021, Caitlin DeSilvey and Martin Grünfeld