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In conversation with Neil Cummings, February 1997.


James Putnam: Your current project ‘collected’ reflects a long term interest in museums can you say what it might be about museums that you find inspiring?

Neil Cummings: ... it seems that the museum is like the horizon of every object - everything aspires to be in a museum. It seems that the only other artefacts that have survived from more ancient times end up there and it seems to have dominated the way we think about material things so in the same way that the modern art museum is a fairly recent phenomenon it’s the place where every artist imagines their work to be in. So I am interested in how the museum accumulates, catalogues, displays, reinterprets material things and it is inevitable as an artist that you see yourself as a component in that, however humble or however far away - it would be silly not to be aware of that as an artist.

JP: So do you see ‘Collected’ and other projects that you have done in the past as catering for a specifically art audience or to you hope to reach the average museum visitor? Do you think that the message that you want to get across is going to reach a wider public?

NC: I’d like to think it would because part of the intention behind the exhibition ‘Collected’ is to implicate everyone in the accumulation and interpretation of material things. I think everyone collects something and while it’s comforting to think of the museum as an institution that deals with objects from the past, its more problematic to think about how we collect and interpret the present and the fact that this still goes on - many of our museums have grown out of personal collections that have been bequeathed to the State, so there’s implications of, if you like, power and aristocratic taste, which is one thing which is implicit within museums but the fact that people collect, however humble those collections may be - cigarette cards, ceramic frogs, neckties, to fine prints - I think the desire to collect and to systemise and to know some sort of material space is a contemporary thing as much as a way of dealing with historical artefacts.

JP: So are you seriously suggesting that the very commercial consumer goods in a department store are as important as some of the cultural artefacts housed in somewhere like the British Museum? Are you using this as a sort of juxtaposition between the readily available - something that you can buy rather than something in a museum which is less obtainable - you can't buy it, you can't even touch it most of the time- is this contrast the message you are trying to get across or are you actually saying that these things are as significant?

NC: ... I don't think I'm saying that those places are necessarily equivalent, I would like to encourage us to think about the relationship of those two places. The fact that both of them have huge systems of accumulating objects, the fact that they have various methods of displaying and cataloguing those objects. Obviously there are equally dissimilar things as you point out. The museum is notoriously not a place where you can go and interact with objects, it tends to be quite didactic whereas as a department store is the inverse - you're encouraged to touch and imagine yourself with those artefacts (products/merchandise). So it's not that I would not want them to be equivalent or exact equivalents, its's more that I'd like to think about how we use both places to order material things and that the museum tends to hold the idea of unique, special, oldest, most beautifully made and the department store tends to have this idea of abundance and multiplication - serial objects mass produced, mass consumed. The fact that we use both of them to structure the wider world of material things I think is really interesting.

JP: I gather you spend quite a lot of time in museums and department stores and you are particularly interested in observing their visitors responses.

NC: I am very much so - for a non expert it’s very difficult to know how to behave in front of objects and often institutions themselves give you the clues how to behave - the fact that a museum may present you with one object in an immaculate vitrine, spot lit with tungsten lights from above and a wall text, it authorises that object as being special, you could say it’s almost immaterial what that object is. Similarly when you go into a department store and see a stack of gleaming saucepans, you are encouraged into this activity of touching, of browsing, of imagining you can possess one of these and in fact their abundance encourages you to feel that you can take part. So I think that both places have a profound effect on the objects they house. In many ways I think the institutions and their display suggests or even controls how you have to behave towards the objects you’re looking at.

JP: So is your view of museums something that’s changing. Obviously it’s different from when you visited them as a child and then a student because now you’re making all these acute observations and your thoughts about museums are probably still evolving. Do you think you’re making a kind of psychological study?

NC: I’m not sure it’s a psychological study but I do think that museums have to be constantly thinking about what they’re for, who they’re for and how they present themselves. Of course they’re doing this - they’re under pressures to be part of the leisure industry, becoming more interactive, pressing buttons which activate flashing lights, slides or films. While at the moment this approach seems quite popular, my own experience would be that it actually limits this space for the imagination of the museum user. Particularly when I go with my daughter, there’s this initial rush of enthusiasm for pushing buttons but it quickly wears off. On the other hand when you go to a place like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, you’re left in many ways to make your own connections between objects and in some way’s it’s a much richer experience.

To visit Neil Cummings' website click here.

Neil Cummings

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