I had attended the conference on the recommendation of my supervisor, and thought that it would be interesting but rather tangential to my research, but given my focus on historic houses it served as a very useful alternative way into thinking about how domestic spaces are displayed, both in and out of museum contexts.
Rather than describe the whole conference, I will instead highlight a few of the ideas/themes I found most interesting/thought provoking.
- Does a Period Room cease to be a "room" because of its context in a museum? Does it become a memorial, a shrine, a mausoleum? Is it just a fictional stage for unrelated objects, or otherwise tenuously linked objects from the same era. Is an IKEA store just a collection of period rooms? Are we being sold Good Taste when we visit a period room in a museum?
- Is the period room aiming for historical accuracy, or aesthetic pleasure? Does authenticity really matter (I'd argue definitely not, though I overheard two other delegates discussing this "what's the point of a period room if not all of the furniture is authentic?" "I know, it's more like a playroom"...)? To what extent is a curator relying on imagination as much as historical fervour? One speaker pointed out that no room consists of only furniture, decor and objects from the particular snapshot it might be recorded in, there might be a piece of furniture belonging to granny that's already 50 years old, etc. The presentation of a period room can only ever be in line with research/recreation and conservation techniques of the time in which it is assembled.
- How do you people a period room? Where are the humans? Are period rooms too often sanitised as places of inactivity? A room only lives because of how people use and interact with it. Period rooms, perhaps, become about production, design, furniture, rather than the social. Where does taste fit in to this? and class? these are inherently human phenomenons, and inherently visible in domestic spaces. How can people be introduced into a period room? Often curators will leave a period-appropriate newspaper draped over the arm of a chair, a pair of reading glasses on a side table, a pair of slippers by the bed, is this any better than leaving them unpeopled? Is it too staged?
- What parallels does the period room have with the theatre? or with stage sets? what skills could be harvested between period room curators, stage and set designers? does one value authenticity and historical accuracy/aesthetic appearance more than the other?
- One point that had never occurred to me was to do with ambience and the room being situated in a wider context, through lighting and windows. What time of day/night is the period room being presented? does it matter? in windowless museum spaces, should windows be replicated? If the curtains or shutters are always closed it immediately lessens the room-ness of the room, it isolates it from any broader context.
- For me, the most interesting discussion was about the potential role of artists in period rooms, which chimes with my own exhibition at Sutton House with artist Judith Brocklehurst. Do audiences more readily accept more radical approaches to story telling from artists than from curators? Can artists take more risks? Will visitors accept fiction and inauthenticity from artists, but not from curators? and is the root of this problem that curators, and museums more broadly are seen to be authoritative and definitive? how can we challenge this?
I'll leave you with a few links to some examples that struck me as particularly interesting:
- Elmgreen & Dragset at the V&A
- Maya Zack: Living Room - an interesting virtual period room recreated through storytelling
- Dangerous Liaisons - an example both of peopling a space, and presenting spaces at different times of day/night
- Yinka Shonibare: Dressing down
- Mark Dion: the Curator's Office - the fictional office of a fictional curator presented as period room
- Supper with Shakespeare
- The Butler-Greenwood Plantation Parlour - perhaps the most interesting talk of the conference came from Mel Buchanan from the New Orleans Museum of Art, who spoke of the ethical dilemma of presenting a room from a plantation, and how to frame it sensitively without fetishising the room as a thing of beauty, without unpicking the race issues inherent in such places.
- James Watt's workshop