Woofer Design by Sander Mulder. © Sander Mulder. De La Warr Pavilion show.


Historical and contemporary objects and art works from museums and collections are brought together for two South East exhibitions. Mark Sheerin talks to the curators and galleries to find out more.


Between mid-July and mid-September there is an uncanny crossover between two shows in coastal galleries in the South East. Both Turner Contemporary and De La Warr Pavilion are hi-jacking the conventions of museum display to mix up historical artefacts with contemporary art. This strikes a sombre, pedagogical tone in Margate and should deliver what has already been called a 3D-Tumblr feed in Bexhill-on-Sea.


Walrus, Horniman Museum and Gardens, London. Turner Contemporary show.


Plaudits must go to both curators. Brian Dillon’s show at Turner Contemporary unfolds, at first, in a series of small rooms, which heightens the sense of surprise and discovery. The relative gloom is just as ideal for a set of tantalising drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, as for a recent, and no less mysterious, film about the Loch Ness Monster by Gerard Byrne. Dillon brings a writerly sense of detachment to the entire shebang. Artist Mark Leckey curates the second show and, while divided by rigorous themes, his 200 objects appear to be on the loose. They stand to attention in green, blue and red Chroma key bays; they loom out of the darkness in a room dedicated to monsters. And, in the case of a 10m inflatable of Felix the Cat – complete with giant tin of cat food – they exude a most unacademic sense of fun.


Cabinet-on-stand with ebony veneer and internal fruitwood and ivory marquetry, made in Paris and bought by Mary Evelyn in 1652 for her husband John Evelyn, Geffrye Museum, London. Turner Contemporary.


Both shows make allusion to the voguish notion of the cabinet of curiosities or Wunderkammer, but each offers a different take on this 17th-century craze. Dillon includes an example of one such piece of furniture (which belonged to scholar John Evelyn), and this sets the tone for his combination of science materials and art works. Leckey, on the other hand, puts the 400-year-old convention under erasure; the cabinet, in his case, is search engine Google. “The cabinet is quite domestic,” he tells me. “I’m interested in something more cosmic. It’s that idea of the noosphere, that the sum of all knowledge will unlock the secrets of the universe and that idea of (Pierre Teilhard) de Chardin that building knowledge will bring us up to god.”


David Musgrave, Animal (1997). Courtesy Greengrassi, London. Photo Marcus Leith © the artist. De La Warr Pavilion.


This is an ambitious starting point for a show and not one that lenders might readily get to grips with. Leckey has “nothing against” museums, but cannot resist an aside, quoted from artist Allan Kaprow, that “museums are mausoleums”. He also expresses surprise at the levels of value put on different objects. “One was a 3000-year-old Canopic vase which just needed one conservator to come and watch me put it on a plinth with a bit of museum wax,” he recalls. “At the other extreme, you had a Richard Hamilton prototype computer – not even a working computer – and it required two conservators, who wouldn’t let anyone get near it”. By contrast, Dillon found that museums were keen to showcase their exhibits with contemporary art: “The institutions were as interested as we were in what might happen when you made those juxtapositions.” They were also sold on the show’s title and explicit theme: curiosity.


Jeremy Millar, Masked Self-Portrait (2008), framed colour photograph in custom-made archival mount, Courtesy of the artist. Turner Contemporary.


With loans from the Queen’s Collection, the Science Museum, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum in Paris, it seems ‘mausoleums’ were lining up to re-animate their holdings with a show in a white cube gallery. And, as you might expect from an editor of a magazine called Cabinet, Dillon defends the notion of a Wunderkammer for its “wide open sense of variety”, however, the writer updates his cabinet with plenty of art. He also comments: “At a time when we’re always being told that we’re too distracted – by technology, mostly – it’s worth recalling that engaging the world and being diverted from it are part of the same process of knowing, not opposites. The historical cabinet of curiosities remains a good emblem of that process.” Perhaps 17th-century joinery has something in common with Google after all.


Thomas Grunfeld, Misfit (penguin/peacock), 2005 © DACS 2013. Turner Contemporary show.


Meanwhile, Turner Contemporary Director Victoria Pomery notes that the cabinet of curiosity is an international meme, with a starring role in this year’s Venice Biennale. “I think it’s to do with that quest for knowledge which we have had as humans for a very long time,” she says, “but the new technology and the Internet have opened up even greater possibilities around how we gather knowledge.” She hopes our sense of “wonder and awe” is a timeless quality. Pomery is also upbeat about the potential for new galleries to collaborate with old museums like the Horniman, which lent Turner Contemporary its iconic overstuffed walrus, a one-tonne exhibit that hadn’t been moved for more than a century. Pomery says: “I think people in the museums and galleries sector are keen to make things happen and they see the possibilities that collaboration brings.”


Philip Henry Gosse, c. 1858-c.1860, Illustration for Actinologia Britannia plate I, Horniman Museum and Gardens, London ®Heini_Schneebeli. Turner Contemporary.


But is this always the case? Reports from Nottingham Contemporary, where the Leckey show is currently on tour, confirm the artist’s variable experiences of collaboration. Alex Farquharson, Director, expresses pleasure and surprise to have loans, including a space suit for a dog and a valuable sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. But, in general, he tells me there are frustrations for a gallery like his. “It is quite difficult securing major works for group exhibitions rather than solo exhibitions, so that’s not usually prioritised by lenders,” he points out. He also says that major galleries with outstanding collections are more likely to secure loans, “because there’s a principle of reciprocity at work”. Hayward Touring did most of the loan wrangling for his current show before its imminent journey to De La Warr.


Cyberman Helmet, 1985. Courtesy Chris Balcombe. Photo: Chris Balcombe. De La Warr Pavilion.


But a show that has in parts been likened by its curator to a “rave” and a “zoo” was always going to face a greater challenge than Dillon’s more austere and cerebral offering in Margate. The exploratory writer subtitles his show the pleasures of knowing, flagging up an epistemological itch. The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things is, perhaps, a more ontological presentation. It might be thought of as ‘the anxieties of being’. As Farquharson says of museum exhibits in a contemporary space: “They’re read backwards from the perspective of the present.” And that is bound to unsettle us. If science reassures and art disturbs, there is still a great divide between museums and galleries.


Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing runs until 15 September at Turner Contemporary, Margate.


The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things opens on 13 July at De La Warr Pavilion and will run until 20 September.