Bringing the Bronze Age up to date
Colchester’s Firstsite gives a fresh look
When we peruse a museum exhibition, we use a variety of sources to evaluate the exhibits. We’ll usually start by looking at the item, we may be allowed to touch it, we’ll probably read a little about it, may even watch a short video showing how it was found or used, and in some cases will be treated to an interactive experience to increase our engagement.
BRONZE AGE c. 3500 BC–AD 2018 gives visitors the chance to learn more about this fascinating period of history while also prompting them to think about the power of museums and the way people have presumptions and sometimes ill-informed opinions when they view exhibitions.
BRONZE AGE recreates a fictional Bronze Age presentation from a forgotten museum. An iteration of Hauser & Wirth’s satirical museological presentation at Frieze London 2017, the show has been curated specifically for Colchester – the earliest recorded Roman town in Great Britain. Conceived and originated by Dr Neil Wenman in collaboration with Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, the exhibition focuses solely on works made of bronze or from the Bronze Age period. These include artefacts on loan from regional museums and private collections nationwide, sculptures by artists including modern masters Louise Bourgeois, Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore and Fausto Melotti, along with Phyllida Barlow’s bronze cast paint sticks, Subodh Gupta’s bronze Mona Lisa, a cast bronze fist by Martin Creed and Mark Wallinger’s spectacles.
Parodying the curatorial choices of historical museum exhibitions, the artefacts and artworks are separated into six themes: Domestic Life, Decoration & Adornment, Fertility & the Body, Religion & Burial, Trade & Agriculture and War & Battle. Contemporary works of art and historical artefacts are mischievously mixed with miscellaneous bronze items purchased from eBay. Masquerading as archaeological finds, these invite visitors
to ponder how the significance of an object can be dictated by context. Moving away from the traditional white walls of an art gallery, the presentation challenges expectations and highlights the power of display.
Institutions that have loaned works and objects to BRONZE AGE include Bruton Museum, Somerset; Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery, Shrewsbury, and David Roberts Art Collection, London. At Firstsite, objects have been incorporated from the ‘designated status’ collection of the Colchester and Ipswich Museums. A unique addition to the presentation at Firstsite will be the Berryfield Mosaic (cAD 150), which is located at the entrance of the exhibition. This mosaic masterpiece was discovered in Colchester in 1923 where Firstsite is now located and is permanently installed within the gallery floor.
An audio guide voiced by Professor Mary Beard, available on iTunes, enhances the visitor’s ‘museum’ experience and suggests the decoding of the objects on view. Professor Beard says: ‘I thought the playacting, whimsical nature of the project sounded like a bit of fun and while we’ve approached the presentation as a satire, it’s also a way to reinvigorate how people think about history, archaeology and museum display. It’s partly about the way we look. Who knows how and where inspiration strikes? I’m very keen on keeping alive our connection to the past and our conversation with it, and this project encapsulates that in a very accessible way.’
Firstsite director Sally Shaw adds further: ‘BRONZE AGE is a very important show for Firstsite in that it shows masterworks from the contemporary and modern art canons alongside ancient antiquities. While it was initially conceived as a satire on museum exhibitions, it has grown into something much more than that, inviting the viewer to approach history and archaeology from a fresh perspective. Originally conceived by Hauser & Wirth, we have been delighted to add exhibits from Colchester and Ipswich Museums. And bringing the project to Colchester – the UK’s oldest recorded town, the seat of the Roman occupation of Britain and home to one of the most radical contemporary art galleries – is a perfect continuation of this story.’
Find out more
BRONZE AGE c. 3500 BC–AD 2018 is open from 10am to 5pm until October 28. The exhibition has been generously supported by Hauser & Wirth, AB Fine Art Foundry, the Coode-Adams Firstsite Trust, Firstsite Collectors’ Group, the Finnis Scott Foundation and the Hervey Benham Charitable Trust. Visit www.firstsite.uk/whats-on/bronze-age
Images courtesy of Hauser & Wirth with photography by Damian Griffiths