Adult Entry: Free
Nearest Tube: South Kensington
The title of this exhibition, ‘Every Objects Tells A Story’, hangs somewhere between pretentious and redundant, and is all the more disappointing because of how good everything else about it is. That dealt with, I can begin my praise of this uniquely presented exhibition.
‘Every Object…’ comes from the collection of one man, Oliver Hoare, an art dealer who has previously exhibited in London in 2015. Art dealer is the operative term here- almost every object in the exhibition is for sale, though not for prices I could consider. ‘Every Object…’ can be aptly described as a walk-in wardrobe of curiosities, grouped according to whim as much as narrative. That is not to criticise the display however, which intriguingly straddles the line between exhibition and showroom. Entering the main gallery feels like being a guest in a wealthy benefactor’s parlour. Walking to one of the armchairs by the window, enjoying the subtle jazz soundtrack as I reach across the antique coffee table to collect an exhibition catalogue, I quickly change from visitor to guest. The little lounge area could have housed a dozen more objects, but the reduction in space was more than compensated for by the creation of a relaxed and intimate sensation for exploring the collection. That feeling of being a guest changed the way I explored the space and interacted with the objects, encouraging amusement above academia. For better and worse.
Having collected my catalogue (the objects are numbered not labelled, making the catalogue the only source of interpretation) I began my exploration. The layout of the space is appropriately anachronistic, modern cases are filled in a crowded Victorian style, eschewing the narrative-driven minimalism of modern museums for the thematic grouping of the Enlightenment. The colour palette is also very effective. A pale grey has been used throughout, working to create an area of attention in an otherwise cavernous white hall. This grey is also an excellent background colour for the objects, making the bold and subtle colours alike ‘pop’. The numbering system works well on the whole. In fact, with a crowded layout, it was probably the only realistic option. One downside is that the exhibition catalogue is so big and glossy that it is actually a pain to carry around the gallery. I saw many people looking at objects and then retreating to the seats to read the content. Perhaps the seating is more practical than I had realised…
One more general criticism that I will level at the interpretation is that it can often feel, erm, fanciful. I’m not accusing it of being untrue, rather highlighting that the interpretation will not tell you much more about the object, but will instead use it as a convenient prompt to tell a related but rambling anecdote. Browse with a pinch of salt and maybe trust that your imagination is enough to get by- after all, this exhibition is to entertain and entice, not to educate.
A few star pieces alone are worth the effort of getting to the gallery. A driftwood elephant is wild and evocative as it pauses mid-stride, dominant on the grey central island. A Mexican carved stone ‘stargazer’ captured me from the moment I laid eyes on it, and kept me enthralled even when I stopped admiring it ten minutes later.
The stargazer provides an excellent reason to return to issues of display. The reason I was able to admire my new friend for so long was because it was not isolated deep inside a glass case; it was out on the shelf. As a member of the museum world, I experienced a period of profound anxiety upon entering a gallery where there are so many objects ‘ex-case’. In fact, the entire lower shelf of the gallery is open, which is not to say that you can touch the objects, you may not, but rather that you are trusted not to. It was an entirely strange and unique feeling to see rare and delicate objects one child-swipe away from disaster (I still have nightmares about an 18th Century Indo-Dutch carved Ostrich egg sitting Humpty-Dumpty-like on the ledge). But that implied trust worked brilliantly. Have you ever walked into a museum, and felt patronsied by the signs and cases, keeping you as far away as possible from the objects. Me too. So what a delight to be trusted to appreciate these objects outside of their safe and secure cages. Remember what I said about the guest thing? Yeah, that again.
Perhaps that is a good place to conclude; dwelling on what this imaginative attitude to display can achieve. Is is not a practical format, or indeed one that can be extrapolated in its current state, but it most certainly opens discussions about trust, scale, theme, and background music, which we would benefit from engaging with.