Bearing witness to centuries of scientific experimentation and cultural exploration, the Hunterian, Glasgow’s university museum, has an impressive collection of artefacts, instruments, specimens and artworks. Its contents have inspired generations of thinkers and artists. Today Glasgow is packed with artists’ studios, alive with the same spirit of invention and curiosity, and in his many visits, Deputy Director Mungo Campbell has discovered many works directly inspired by Hunterian’s collection, and artistic practices which cast fresh light on the cultural complexities of science, research, spectatorship.
Given the opportunity in 2003 to acquire a new body of contemporary works of art for the Hunterian collection (through the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland), Campbell was determined that the artworks should enter into a productive conversation with the existing holdings, ensuring that they would have ongoing and evolving resonances within the collection. Certain artists, Campbell knew, had been directly inspired by visits to the Hunterian and discussions with specialists there, and he set about collecting their works and drawing out these connections.
William Hunter thought of his eclectic bequest as one collection - a physician and obstetrician, he was also a passionate collector of art (his contemporary collecting included works by Chardin and Stubbs), books, coins, as well as scientific instruments - and the museum continues that principle today. Even though the museum and art gallery are ostensibly housed in different sites at present, many of the new acquisitions have been shown in the museum rather than the gallery.
Artists often explore the boundaries between disciplines; they can take a step back, reflect on the wider humanity of academic endeavor, the allure of natural objects, the exhilaration of research, they can probe the complex aura around museum artefacts. At the same time, they can explode categories, exploit the uncanny, and draw our attention to the irrational that nestles within the rational practices of the Enlightenment.
Mark Dion’s “Deep Time Pour (For Lord Kelvin and Robert Smithson)” was made as a tribute to Lord Kelvin’s artificial glacier pitch experiment and exhibited at CCA in 2001 as part of an exhibition called “Words and Things”. Ilana Halperin was a regular attender at the Hunterian, and indeed, had staged a performance at the Hunterian for the same CCA show. Halperin often intertwines personal and geological landscapes, and one of the labels from her “Nomadic Landmass” exhibition cited a conversation she had had with a “man named Mike at the Hunterian Museum” about a crystal shard she had found. Campbell subsequently acquired several works by Halperin, including the crystal shard itself. The medical holdings have been equally suggestive for artists. Christine Borland’s delftware skulls were moulded from skulls in the university’s anatomy department, while Anne Bevan and Janice Galloway drew on Hunter’s obstetric implements for their collaborative sculptural installation “Rosengarten”. Indeed, Campbell has pointed out, these implements had been impossible to show independently, but Bevan and Galloway’s installation brought a new, nuanced lens through which to view their aesthetic forms, their visceral materiality, their poignant and vital history, and their cultural significance.
Research in action
Although the Hunterian collections are open to the public at large, the university community itself is the primary audience, and research and teaching is at the heart of this community. Thus, there is a strong interest in the practice of research itself, in the practice of collecting - and a level of reflexivity about collecting is permitted, even expected. For Campbell, the collection is made more vivid and visible to audiences through an artists’ engagement with it. Objects on their own only tell part of their story. There are levels of richness and insight that come with an artist’s careful consideration of meaning making, their navigation of the stores and archive, the re-presentation of objects, and the creation of new objects in dialogue with their context. Indeed Campbell cites several instances in which the professional practices of museum curators have been influenced and shaped by artists’ subtle explorations, revelations, and indeed provocations.
The institution’s approach to art curating has been developed, too, through working with emerging curators - such as Starting Point Curatorial Fellow 2013-14, Sacha Waldron, and students on the MLitt in Curatorial Practice initiated in 2014 with Glasgow School of Art - who have produced fresh perspectives within the museum.