Musing On Muse…

Boyd Dawkins notes
Sir William Boyd Dawkins notebook in the archive, Wells and Mendip Museum

Artist Sean Harris at Wells and Mendip Museum

As a maker and mover of pictures, objects and light, collaboration with museums has been a primary element of my work for well over a decade now, the edifices of the Smithsonian Institution and the British Museum neo-classical book-ends on a shelf replete with volumes of all shapes and sizes – in whose quieter, lesser known pages are nevertheless to be found many of the brightest, most surprising and ultimately
rewarding gems.

Visits to museums were an integral part of my upbringing, as was drawing – and looking back it strikes me that one activity informed the other. Together they propagated a curious nature and, I think, quite acute powers of observation. These qualities underpin my practice as an artist and are also, I have found, central components in the make-up of most of the archaeologists, zoologists, geologists anthropologists (and so on…) with whom I have had the good fortune to work. Add shared passion and rigour to the pot and the perceived boundaries between us start to melt away.

Taking this notion for a walk, if one goes back to the nineteenth century – the blinking of an eye in geological time – we find that the divisions and compartments that define who we are in modern society do not exist. In her wonderful book Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge Rebecca Solnit makes this observation;

(1872)… was a year of glacial fever. And it was a time in which artists and scientists saw themselves alike in their mission of understanding nature, which was why Muir could treat geology and literature as one project, could share a conversation with both Emerson and Agassiz, why Bierstadt and King were exploring together, why King employed great photographers to work with him, why Muybridge never had to distinguish between creative and documentary photography.

(John Muir was a naturalist, author and environmental philosopher, Louis Agassiz a geologist, Ralph Waldo Emerson a philosopher, Clarence King a government surveyor and geologist, Albert Bierstadt a painter and Muybridge, of course, was a photographer and inventor).

Furthermore, it seems doubtful that our Palaeolthic ancestors recognised compartmentalised entities such as ‘Art’, ‘Science’ or ‘Religion’. And so, it strikes me that this Muse project – which is enabling artists and makers to explore, discuss and respond (often intuitively) to collections founded on post-Enlightenment taxonomies, their diverse custodians and communities – represents a way of thinking and being that speaks of the greater part of the story of modern homo sapiens. It will move beyond beyond the mere dissemination of knowledge into the awkward gaps which lie between silos, where the intangible, unclassifiable aspects of our humanity lurk.

Badger Hole Diggers
H E Balch, founder of the museum’s, record of expenses from his excavations at the Badger Hole

And for me, to be able to explore in the Wells and Mendip Museum not just the amazing bone collections and geology of the Mendip caves, but also the stories of the Victorian ‘cave hunters’ – gentlemen explorers who contributed so much to the evolution of modern scientific thinking – represents a confluence of many long held interests.

Ice Age hyaena jaw from the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole

In 1859, the same year that Darwin published his Origin of Species, William Boyd Dawkins began excavating the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole. At this time, Noah’s flood – The Deluge – was still widely thought to have been the mechanism by which strange and exotic animal bone had been deposited in limestone caves across the British Isles. By the time Boyd Dawkins finished his exploration in the early 1870’s, the hegemony of the Old Testament had largely been put to bed. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Eadweard Muybridge was beginning to unlock the secrets of motion using revolutionary photographic processes that were to lead to the creation of film, cinema and television, media which dominate our lives today.

What an extraordinary era in which to have been alive; as time simultaneously sped up with the awakening of the modern world – and ground to a halt as Muybridge found the means to freeze it with camera shutters that allowed him to capture increments of 1/24th of a second. And in which the predominance of ritual, cyclical time and nature’s clock rapidly receded – and infrastructure projects of breathtaking scale sought to defy the tyranny of geological time.

Just over a century later (after sharing a birth place with Muybridge) in a bedroom akin to a cabinet of curiosities – that is to say; festooned with postcards of creatures in zoos and museums and sprinkled with a variety of rocks, bones, feathers and fragments of eggshell – I began conducting my own experiments in projection using a bedside lamp, a magnifying glass and some old slides of a bullfight.

Several decades later, I’m still at it: tinkering, exploring, drawing – but nowadays, through good fortune and ingrained desire, tuning into the resonances and connections borne of time spent in galleries and stores with objects and specimens of resonance and wonder.

This wonderful project draws together and celebrates all of these things and – most importantly of all – should help to preserve and propagate within the minds of the rising generation the same playful inquisitiveness and capacity for observation. Our innate predisposition for invention, for thinking beyond pre-ordained patterns – for creativity – has made us the great survivors that we are. And these attributes, as is becoming all too rapidly apparent, we will need in spades in the coming decades as, in circular fashion, the myth of The Deluge becomes a scientific probability and many of our leaders choose to prioritise myth over science.

NEXT UP: Beasts, Bones and a Concise History of Truth!