Feature: The Visual Poetry of 1001 Objects

Lauren met up with curator and exhibitions officer Andrea Hadley-Johnson to discuss the creative elements of putting together an award-winning exhibit at Derby Museum and Art Gallery.  

Walking into the large gallery on the first-floor of Derby Museum and Art Gallery I encounter a clean, contemporary open space, home to an exhibition that looks less like a traditional museum display and more like a work of art.

It’s a far cry from the gallery’s previous display which, as curator Andrea Hadley-Johnson explains, encouraged visitors to use the room as a corridor rather than a space for viewing and contemplating historical objects.

It is objects that take priority within the new exhibition. Andrea was faced with the challenge of retrieving as many artefacts as possible from the museum’s stores, where they had lain unappreciated for years, and using them to create a new exhibition to engage and delight visitors.

Andrea explains how the gallery was stripped down to a blank canvas with all traces of the previous exhibits removed apart from the famous Bronze Age log boat, which then became a starting point for thinking about a new method of display. “I looked at the boat as a beautiful object, rather than focusing too much on its historical associations.” Contemplating the textured surface of the boat led Andrea to consider the material of which it was made- wood- and how this one material could produce a huge variety of different items.

Following this idea, the room was divided into ‘zones’ showcasing objects made from four key materials materials- wood, stone, glass and bone. Dividing the area in this way allows unusual arrangements of objects to appear alongside each other, such as exotic tribal masks beside humble cotton reels, in contrast to the strictly formalized categories of many museum collections.

Enormous attention to detail ensures each zone has its own feel- for example, in the stone zone “the wall panels have been placed low on the wall to reinforce the impression of weightiness within the material” while elsewhere, glass bottles glisten within a transparent case. Each zone has an identity in keeping with the represented material, but the gallery successfully maintains an overall harmony.

Andrea has created a textured, lively display very different from the flat, linear presentations often found in museums. Objects in purpose-built cases protrude into the room or are presented on plinths, allowing us to examine them closely from all angles. These intimate meetings between person and object allow visitors to be curious and playful- one of Andrea’s primary aims was that the exhibit should “delight people”.

An intentional absence of labeling throughout the exhibit allows objects to tell their own stories and encourages input and creativity from museum visitors who can make up their own minds about the nature and purpose of the items on display, although detailed information about the objects is readily available in the booklets dotted throughout the room.

One of the most innovative things about the exhibition is the way in which it encourages interaction and response that especially appeals to children. There are drawers containing hidden items, waiting to be explored, and a ‘creative area’ in which visitors can make drawings inspired by the collection to be displayed in the room.       

Public response to the display has been “overwhelmingly positive”. As well as this the exhibit has received the Derbyshire Heritage Award for Best Exhibition, with the judges particularly impressed by the experimental, contemporary approach to display. Andrea is now considering how she can add more objects to the exhibit, taking the total number of items on display to 5001!

The Visual Poetry of 1001 Objects is long-term project that will be on display until January 2014.  More information can be found on the exhibit and the museum here.