Cabinet Of Curiosity: What Were The Curators Thinking?
Photos by Karl Rabe, courtesy of Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.
By Robert Burke Warren
If you’re a collector — of anything — we have an exhibit for you. Even if you’re of the “no clutter” camp, it’s hard not to be inquisitive about a “cabinet of curiosities.” But this exhibit is no rambling collectibles barn; it’s been seriously curated. In fact, it’s an exhibit that has as much to do with curators as it does the objects. “Universal Collection: A Mark Dion Project,” is on view until December 11 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, and what you’ll see really is a curious installation.
Since the era of modern museums, curators have chosen certain artifacts to tell the stories of our world. Who were these deciders? Why did they make certain choices? And what if modern Vassar students explored the basements and storage areas of their school, and unearthed formerly venerated exhibits and “mundane” objects of bygone days? Multi-media artist Mark Dion’s fascinating Universal Collection takes on these questions.
The exhibit, encased in a 23-feet high, 9-feet wide custom-made wood-and-glass cabinet, is the culmination of From the Natural History Museum to Ecotourism: The Collection of Nature, a course Dion co-taught in Spring of 2016 with Vassar Professor of Anthropology Anne Pike-Tay. Students and their teachers procured objects from the museum’s basement – which houses collections dating back to the school’s 1861 founding – as well as closets and forgotten rooms of other campus buildings. Dion then painstakingly arranged the objects in the cabinet and the museum’s atrium.
“The students mined every collection we could think of,” Lehman Loeb co-curator Elizabeth Nogrady says. “We found things we didn’t even know we had. And the students talked about why certain items were used, or not used, in past exhibits, and the political ramifications of those actions.”
Among the strangest objects: a replica of the infamous “Piltdown Man” skull, an anthropological “Missing Link” hoax, now nestled alongside an anteater and a ferret, both stuffed; a collection of beautifully carved fencing handles; a diminutive, Hobbit-sized statue of Matthew Vassar himself, placed beside a Victorian-era dress; a well-worn hockey stick beside a Picasso still-life. Seen together, these objects invite consideration of the circumstances and implications of their accumulation. Put together in certain ways, they tell narratives and question ideas of classification. Resulting impressions are intriguing, and often quite funny.
“The objects aren’t labeled,” says co-curator Mary-Kay Lombino. “That’s important to Mark. If someone doesn’t know what something is, it’s important to him that they talk about what they think it is, and why they think that.”
In a storage area of a science building, a student found something very close to Mark Dion’s personal history: a series of board-game-like psychological tests from the 60s, pictorial challenges in which a person must “correctly” complete a visual story with images on cards. To the modern eye, these tests are clearly biased and questionable, but in their day, they were gospel. When Dion was a child, experts made him submit to these tests and a battery of others. Doctors were trying to figure out what was “wrong” with him. Turns out, he was – and is – dyslexic. He is more image-oriented than writing-oriented. The tests – all but one in Universal Gathering solved “correctly” – are housed in the cabinet near some antique official Vassar crockery and cutlery.
“The tests say something about the history of psychology and the history of education,” says Lombino. “Mark says he’s getting a little bit of revenge on them now.”
In a recent WAMC interview, Dion spoke of his interest in “pre-enlightenment” museums, 16th and 17th century wunderkabinetts. These attractions featured strange objects from around the world, put together in gatherings modern folk wouldn’t imagine. It was, he said, “a radically different kind of expression.” With the founding of Manhattan’s Natural History Museum in 1869, attitudes toward curating and presenting artifacts became more codified – and political – and the wunderkabinetts faded.
For “Universal Collection,” Dion spent countless hours arranging artifacts and objects, in both hierarchical and non-hierarchical groups, spacing nonsensical gatherings among harmonious ones, and striving to let students and museum goers see objects differently, understand stories more visually, and even discover aspects of themselves in the stories they create about what they see. His process, he says, allows unexpected conversations between the items, and between us.
And it may have you looking at your own collections with a different eye.
Universal Collection: A Mark Dion Project
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College
124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY