Wallinger and Pitt Rivers

This weekend, a visit to the Oxford University Museum, at which Mark Wallinger is currently hosting an art exhibition by Mark Wallinger, in which two replicas of the Tardis are shown, one on the front lawn in front of a giant sequoia (a native of California, which can live for several thousand years), and another ensconced within the museum behind the skull of a Triceratops. The idea is quite ingenious; by making sure that neither Tardis is visible from where the other stands, it is never entirely possible to be certain that it has not simply moved itself.

It would certainly seem to be the case that both objects only partly derive their effect from the recognition of an familiar object in an unexpected location (although only partly so, if we recall Shada). The effect would also seem to be partly due to the sudden confrontation of the viewer with an apparently impenetrable object (of the steady stream of people looking at the Tardis, all of them attempted to open the doors), although each of its four sides has a double-door, only one of which ever opened (the four doors being an obvious absurdity, which the series only ever explored this in Castrovalva). As an ‘installation’ this is certainly a particularly intriguing example, although it seems that it might not be of interest for the reasons Wallinger thinks. Far from forming a contrast between high and low culture, the Tardis seems completely at home in the environs of the museum. The present exhibition, devoted to Lewis Caroll’s Dodo, and the theme of jumping down rabbit holes into other worlds only appears to reinforce this.

The exhibition of the arcane is perhaps rather more a speciality of the Pitt Rivers museum than the University museum. The Pitt Rivers museum is my idea of what every museum should be like, with Victorian glass cases crowding the room, even to the extent of exhibits on top of the cases. The original conception was typological; to concurrently display exhibits (such as musical instruments or carved ivory) alongside similar exhibits from differing cultures. The original conception was to trace lines of communication between cultures, a decidedly dubious conception, which appears to be largely attributable to the importance of systematisation in Victorian intellectual life. Nonetheless, the more immediate reaction to the museum today (which is required to retain the original organisation) is that of a tribute to the Victorian fascination with the arcane and the exotic than to note any scientific reason for the arrangement. Certainly, the organisation of exhibits alongside each other does elicit some rather more unusual connections than would otherwise be the case. My favourite exhibits were a Nigerian wood carving of Queen Victoria (which is quite recognisable as the lady in question, although it would seem unlikely to have won her approval), a set of carved Chinese concentric ivory spheres (it seemed somewhat unclear as to how each sphere had come to be contained within each of the others) and a bottle bequeathed to the museum in the early twentieth century – purportedly containing a witch imprisoned within.

Also visited Kew Gardens – photos in the gallery. The more interesting part of Kew is undoubtedly the Victorian glasshouses, most of which now seem to have become somewhat dilapidated. However, the plants that were planted within them have thrived; one of the most memorable images was of the original Victorian mechanisms for opening the upper windows – completely entwined by the thickened tangles of the vines.

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