There is an exhibition of Doll’s Houses at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in bethnal green. We went on a particularly hot day and peered through the glass as children flowed like the tide around our feet.
It was a relief to find out that dolls houses have only been the pervue of children for a relatively short time. Originally the houses were put together as an expression of conspicuous consumption by Europe’s emerging bourgeois.
The first doll’s houses were little different from the Cabinets for Curiosity that gentlemen filled with oddments traded across the world. The ‘baby house’ gave the lady of the house an opportunity to work on her domestic aspirations and marvel at the skill of the miniaturists craft. Today of course these objects tell us a a great deal about the social expectations of the time in which they were created. A curious cabinet of quite a different nature.
And then the other day I went to see the Cornell exhibition at the RA. So sad: Shadow Boxes in vitrines.
All that effort and creativity reduced to just one sense; sight. I didn’t feel the loss of potential nearly so much with the dolls houses. Was that because I’m not a child any longer to want to play with them, or was it just that with one shake of my big clumsy hand all the tiny things would end up on the floor?
Cornell was interested in recreating a childhood sense of surreal innocence, where anything is possible but always out of reach. I first heard about him in the William Gibson novel ‘Count Zero’. Where SPOILERS an AI in space had taken up his mantel -or maybe the machine was nothing more than a self perpetuating Shadow Box. The boxes are an extension of the man, his collections and preoccupations. But in this gallery they become less than that, static, frozen – art because we declare it art.
For a long time going to a gallery meant rising a collection with a bit of everything – pictures and sculpture grouped by date, theme or genre. there was always a mix of pieces so you could focus on what interested you. I never had money to spend on tickets for a show. I find it strange then to visit an exhibition to find it full of more or less the same thing. You have to work much harder to single out one piece of work and enjoy it. You want to appreciate it, but the context isn’t quite right. I suppose that’s what differentiates honest collections from temporary ones.
True collections always have an underlying genesis, even if it’s ‘Look Shiny!’ like enlightenment Cabinets of Curiosity. Just getting all the things in category A doesn’t reflect and understanding of the things you have amassed.
There is strong possibility that my understanding of what a Collection is has been warped by my early exposure to the collections at Kew Gardens. Over hundreds of years amateur and professional botanists from all over the world have sent back plant curiosities to west London. As a child these shelves piled deep with black card boxes, jars of spirit or dusty containers were part of some secret untold history. That collection was set up as a way to know everything there was to know about plants, before they new what was useful.
Most of the collections in the house where I live are for turning into somethings else – coloured pastels, embroidery threads, draws of cloth. Others hold memories of the past, because they are personal, built up over time. Some one else looking, whether at home or in some gallery would see these things in a different context all together. How does this understanding of context change the meaning.