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  • Susan Elaine Jones

All white cast (almost)

As part of a couple of days working with the Museum Detox/Museum Remix teams, I finally made a visit to the Museum of Classical Archaeology (MOCA), which I think finally completes my full monopoly set of University of Cambridge Museums (UCM).

Cast Gallery, MOCA

It is a museum with many problems in this context, but they are obviously keen to fix issues of whiteness and colonial messages. Already they have a LGBT+Q trail, which I noticed just as a browser by a lovely pink information panel on Pedaerasty. Meanwhile it has an amusing range of statues, sometimes caught in compromising situations or suddenly missing limbs and chins.

This echoed back to the Fitzwilliam porcelain and ceramics collection (the bit I was working on for Museum Remix), and notably the current exhibition of artist Matt Smith's work, Flux:Parian unpacked.

I've seen some of the work in this before, but, as with many museum items, it only came alive with a lot more information of context and background.

For example, there is a lovely, somewhat unassuming cornucopia bowl of animals and vegetables displayed between bronzes of Leda and the Swan and Ganymede and the Eagle. His point is that whilst LGB+Q issues have been pushed to the side, these instances of beastality were happily displayed in homes because they were "classical".

Flux: Parian Unpacked

The work with Matt Smith display was prompted as the Fitzwilliam Museum has been gifted a large number of cast heads of victorian "heroes". (The artist, not the Doctor, Matt Smith, when he's not queering museums (also here), happens to work in parian ceramics - no, I'd never heard of it either, it seems ceramics people get really obsessive about technical details like this. And he adds flux - to make it black not white. A whole level of message that was lost on me).

Matt has taken these heads and made them into a display questioning whether they should be "unpacked" or "packed away forever". The main display is in the octogonal room (off the paintings gallery upstairs) is a big pile of boxes of these heads. It is only when you spend a little more time and look at the walls, and the wallpaper, and which "famous heads" have been put with them that the context starts to come alive:

"Is that the Irish famine?"

"No, it's the Indian famine. Ireland is over there. Near the opium wars."

Each wall has the bust of an associated "great Victorian". And an information sheet to discuss who they were and what happened.

It's worth a special visit to absorb the full message. And is a very daring (and difficult) display, not least because the donor's family may not like the interpretation put on the donation.

Meanwhile, I won't describe the many fun ideas that came out of the Remix meeting - I'm much more interested to see how the museums work with the ideas and try to move on from old, white, colonial viewpoints to a more rounded message including more views of culture and history. But, there was a very strong message that museums are working hard to stay relevant, be informative and not stay stuck in the past. Watch this (still, mainly white) space!

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