Privilege, Precariousness and Responsibility
A Reflection on My Home is My Museum
The house is a discursive arena in which inside and outside spaces hold specific social and cultural associations that can be subverted through artistic representation.
Perry G, Playing at Home: The House in Contemporary Art, 2013.
My Home is My Museum grew from a germ of an idea after a visit to Ipswich Museum several years ago. Beautiful, rare and unusual objects stared out from behind glass cabinet walls, each imbued with value and significance and part of a carefully considered story. Some of these objects had been donated, others collected particularly to illustrate specific areas of knowledge. Several had once held a role in ordinary domestic life. Returning home, I noticed afresh objects around my home, on the mantelpiece, in the kitchen, on shelves and tables. They too had a role, one of memory and as emotional triggers, of functionality and uselessness, my own history arranged around the rooms. There were other stories too, of rarity, value, fact and figure; masked considerations since for me, personal association always holds the upper hand. These ideas developed and grew and led to a collection of objects donated by the public and a performance piece that took place inside two Cambridge houses
There is a tradition of artists working in homes, and in museums, and with objects. I considered the idea of approaching the house as a museum, exploring the contents as one would in a gallery, curious as to how and if we actually curate the objects in our homes. I wondered if a collection of donated objects from the public would open up the richness I felt sure was hidden behind front doors. I thought frequently of domestic collections up and down the land remaining private and only shared with the privileged few that are invited over the threshold into our homes. The point of entry is transitional, intense; it heralds a change in circumstances and this was a key moment at the beginning of the performances.
The rules were set instantly with careful, deliberate instructions of how to step over the threshold, an act that launched the audience into becoming part of the performance, but more than that illustrated that we were stepping into another world. We were entering an individual's home where due reverence had to be given but we were also entering a space where each of us had to let go and put ourselves into the hands of Caroline Wright, our Museum Guide for the evening.
Elly Wright, Audience Member
The rules did not simply apply to the museum guide/audience relationship. A set of parameters shared and agreed between the householders and myself was necessary to establish a context that everyone felt comfortable with. Where were the boundaries when talking about other people’s treasures to a set of strangers? How far could fact and fiction be intertwined, if at all? How much personal information could be divulged?
It was a little disconcerting knowing that a bunch of complete strangers were in my home looking at my things without me being there - usually you are with your visitors and can see where they glance and what they are noticing. I wonder what picture they formed of me from my objects and furnishings?
Kirsten Lavers, householder
Was it voyeuristic to use someone else's home as a performance space - was it too intrusive? But I needn't have been concerned about these things, as I was made to feel very welcome, and the performance was very respectful to the 'museum owners' and their treasures. What I wasn't prepared for was how moved and affected I would be by the piece.
The choice of focus in each performance was dictated to a great extent by the householders’ stories, practical considerations such as visibility for the audience and selecting objects that connected to form a layered narrative. This determined the pace of the piece and brought variety to the performance; some objects were invested with many layers of meaning, others had no real significance but had somehow found their way into a display.
I asked the museum owner about this enamelled metal advertising board but she was not that interested in it, having picked it up in a market because the colours compliment the painting above. I actually quite like it – on the TV there is a horrible sports injury and yet the family are all smiling, the mother and son have even run in from outside to see what going on.
Extract from performance script
Museums are full of protocols and systems, and the museum guide is part of this construct, enhancing the power of the institution and underpinning the knowledge structure. Our houses have a set of established systems, we adopt and observe unspoken behaviour patterns, live by mutually agreed rules. To an outsider, houses and their objects give us a sense of those who live there, we imagine the person to whom the glass penguin paperweight belongs, we picture the wearer of the Panama hat. Houses and their contents generate a character all of their own.
It was through the chosen objects that we were then taken on a journey of museological considerations: the provenance, the measurements, the precise positioning and curation, the monetary value, the emotional value, the broader historical/social/geographical context. With each object we were bombarded with an avalanche of fabulous information. The Western Rockhopper Penguin, Vesuvius erupted in AD79, the Eastern Rockhopper Penguin, the chemical make-up of a match, the Northern Rockhopper Penguin, residual ink left on an etching plate, there is not a Southern Rockhopper Penguin.
Elly Wright, audience member
(On the way home) We talked about how the first house seemed to be presented in a more analytical and factual way and the second house was more personal and emotional. Was it to settle us in to the performance with something safe first?
Diane and Stuart Archer, audience members
In writing the script and then sharing this with the householders in advance of the performances to ensure they were comfortable with the contents, I endeavoured to meld facts and information gleaned from them with additional research and a touch of humour. Decisions were made about how to incorporate potentially sensitive material. Some sections of the script were based closely on the householders’ own words, particularly when there was an emotional aspect to the content. It is a truth that many of the things we keep and hold and treasure are memorials to people, places or experiences. By acting as guardians of objects, we can deliberately travel back in our minds to relive an emotion, we can commemorate something or someone of significance; we can celebrate a part of our lives. We are placed on a timeline. Positioned in a history of our own making, we surround ourselves with our chosen, private world.
The subject of this sketch is the museum owner’s brother. It was drawn by the museum owner’s mother and is dated late 1980’s, depicting the subject before his early death at the age of only 38. The sketch is a fine example of the delicacy of the drawn line, the way that the emotion shines out far more than it could in any photograph, these are bloodlines encased in pencil. He was young man, supposedly with his life stretching out before him. Look at his face….his mother would ask him to sit for her, to remain still for her to measure, and study and look and plot his form on the two dimensional paper. Her gaze that of a mother and an artist, seeking to represent all she knew. She rendered him forever in this room, on this paper.
I wonder did she know that her request for him to keep motionless would become permanent? I wonder did he know that his mother’s drawing would outlive him?
Extract from performance script
The performances were for small audiences, a maximum of eight at a time. Thus the relationship between audience and performer was intimate, objects could be passed around with time for everyone to see them, close inspection was possible. Laughter was shared easily - one audience group were particularly full of mirth. Emotion in close quarter is palpable. The shared experience developed a fragile relationship between everyone, bonded together in the room. As a performer, the closeness of the audience, the responsibility to them and to the householders, all made for a precariousness, a intimacy of experience, simultaneously full of fear and enjoyment.
50 minutes – so emotionally charged I haven’t talked to anyone about it. I almost don’t want to share my experience, in case I lose it……. I loved the amusing moments – tea towels preserving our spirituality! And I was amazed at how I was drawn in. I loved the intimacy of our small and silent group – the specialness created. I wonder what emotions were stirred in the breasts of the other museum visitors that day?
Lindsey Wright, audience member
Was it the way the objects connected to the passing of time and the stories of whole lives and their links to previous and subsequent generations that was so moving? Was it the sadness and the sense of loss in the final story told. Was it the references to mother and child that got to me in particular? For my part I found it profound, moving, generous and somehow complete.
As I travelled home I was overwhelmed by a strong feeling that my home is not just a museum, but it is a fortress. It is where I keep my most precious things, my loved ones. For my nearest family it is their home, where I keep them warm and safe. For all the others I love, it houses mementoes, photographs, gifts (the wanted and less appreciated!) of those people (both still living and dead) who are important to me. And hopefully it houses some things that will make it to the next generation, one way or another.
The value we place in objects we choose to cherish and display is powerful and enriching. This is equally borne out by the objects donated to the online My Home is My Museum Collection. Wonderful and fascinating things such as a charm bracelet, a Greek Acropolis rally plate, an art deco vase, a snake’s shed skin and dogs’ ashes have been donated and the stories that accompany them illustrate the narrative richness that we surround ourselves with. Making the My Home is My Museum performances was a privilege and through the householders trust and generosity to the work, any fears were diminished. Immersing ourselves in someone else’s home, possessions and stories is a rare event. We had experienced this together, audience and performer, sealing the occasion with the gift of an inscribed match saying, “Your Home is Your Museum”.
We left with a better insight into two peoples lives and felt richer for the experience. We went away reflecting on the same items within our own home and their meaning and value to us. A thought process triggered by this performance and a recognition that we surround ourselves with things that have a strong personal value but maybe inconsequential monetary value. The matches currently remain unused, and maybe we will look with a fresh perspective as we visit people's homes in future.
Tim Smith, audience member
Photos by Tony Millings.