Beyond the Academy: Research as Exhibition

I have recently been thinking through the exhibition as a research output while working on the production of Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade an exhibition I  am co-curating (with Liz Gomez) in association with the Material Culture Institute of the University of Alberta.

My friend at Archiving the City alerted me to an event which dealt with the issue of the exhibition as research output:

Beyond the Academy: Research as Exhibition was produced jointly by LCACE and TATE Britain and held at TATE on the 14th May 2010. It sought to work through the notion of the exhibition as an academic research output by asking the following questions:

  • The ‘exhibition’ is increasingly being reframed and redefined as a ‘research output’ but what role can new forms of research and collaboration bring to the concept and curatorship of the exhibition?
  • Is the idea of the exhibition being distorted or creatively extended by new disciplinary practices and knowledges?
  • In what ways do new forms of research exhibitions create new types of knowledge and experience for the audience?

Although I didn’t make it to the actual event a podcast of the three panels from the symposium is available on the TATE website, please click here to navigate to the TATE’s feed. The three panel sessions addressed different issues relating to both the possibilities and potential pitfalls of the exhibition as a research output:

Panel 1: Exhibitions Through Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange.

Panel 2: The Role of the Exhibition and the Role of Curator.

Panel 3: The Future of the Research Exhibition.

Speakers at the panel sessions included Professor Bruno Latour (Sciences Po), Angus Carlisle (CRiSAP) and Irene Revell (Electra), Dr John Byrne (LJMU) and Alistair Hudson (Grizedale Arts), Leslie Topp (Birbeck), David Cotterrell, Professor Felix Driver (Royal Holloway, UoL) and Kate Southworth.

Through my own academic research I have consciously cultivated a corresponding curatorial practice. My PhD project critically examined the craft worlds and knowledge-practices of taxidermists, past and present, and their material culture of animal remains. Part of the goal of this PhD research was to reassert the value of taxidermy specimens and collections through collaborative exchange with museum practitioners and contemporary artists. The exhibitions Blue Antelope (2006) and Out of Time (2007), co-curated with environmental artist Kate Foster, were the practical outcomes of different investigations by geographers and artists into how interest in zoological collections can be reactivated.

Here is a little more info on both of these collaborative curatorial projects:

Out of Time: an exhibition inspired by the arts of taxidermy (May/June 2007, Hunterian Museum Glasgow) was a practical outcome of different inter-disciplinary investigations into the ways that zoological collections can be reactivated. A collective of exhibitors teased out particular aspects of a specimen’s object history and entanglements with human activity, present and past. Being familiar with the museum, exhibitors used the institutional setting strategically, making juxtapositions and exposing tensions between states of life and death, nature and culture, the artificial and the real. Work was presented by artists Kate Foster (lead curator), Andrea Roe and Jethro Brice and geographers Dr Hayden Lorimer and myself (Dr Merle Patchett).

The video above depicts Andrea Roe’s work Paddling Gull installed in the Hunterian Zoology Museum as part of the exhibition.

Image © Vienna Natural History Museum / Kate Foster

Hunterian Zoology Museum Specimen Label, not in current use. Photograph © Hunterian Museum

Blue Antelope (Aug-Nov 2006, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow) was an art-geography collaboration that mapped the diverse lives of an extinct antelope from the starting point of a rare skull of the animal held in the Hunterian collection. The resulting exhibition, seminar and website brought together work by Kate Foster, Hayden Lorimer and myself, in association with Maggie Reilly of the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow.

  • The exhibition took place from 21 August-24 November 2006, at the Hunterian Zoological Museum, University of Glasgow.
  • The accompanying seminar Making Animal Afterlives: a seminar bringing together work by artists and geographers using zoological collections, took place at the museum on November 22nd 2006.
  • The website brings together collaborative work on the Blue Antelope and recasts it in other contexts. This is the most comprehensive source of information available about the animal, and is available to those who cannot actually see the skull (the skull is presently on display in the newly refurbished Hunterian).
  • The project team is currently working on the publication of Blue Antelope Correspondences – a book that will recreate the bluebuck as a charismatic and elusive creature and as a biogeographical redistribution of matter and meanings, working through drawings (old and new), photographed artifacts, essays, creative fiction and non-fiction.

Coincidently, and working out of Vancouver, comparative literature scholar Rachel Poliquin has taken a similar approach to researching taxidermy in that she too has created a blog (from 2006), exhibition (2010) and book (forthcoming). However while I and my fellow collaborators have been keen to explore the complex human-animal relations associated with taxidermy practice both historically and through it’s present revival through the work of certain contemporary artists, Poliquin seems to be more taken by the aesthetic and poetic resonances of taxidermy objects.

The perfect opportunity to continue my research-led curatorial practice presented itself in the form of the University of Alberta’s 2011 Material Culture Institute symposium: “Material Culture, Craft & Community: Negotiating Objects Across Time & Place”.

Instead of giving the expected paper I suggested instead an exhibition based on research stemming from my PhD research on the use of taxidermy in the millinery trade.  While feathers fascinate, are fetishized and are very much back in fashion, there was a time when the wings, bodies and heads of birds were used to adorn hats.

Parrot Hat-Fascinator from the University of Alberta's Clothing and Textiles Collection

The aim of the exhibition is to de-fetishize such plumage commodities by exploring the complex geographies of collection, production and consumption behind their making; from the hunting and killing of birds in their natural habitats (some to the brink of extinction), to their processing in metropolitan plumage sweatshops, local milliners’ shops and among amateur hat-makers, to their final use as adornment on the heads and bodies of women in many parts of the western world.

By tracing the movement of these commodities across time and place (and between states of life and death) the exhibition aims to expose and explore some of the gender contradictions and class tensions associated with the trade and production of bird skins and feathers for millinery purposes from the height of ‘feather fashions’ in the Victorian/Edwardian era to its present-day revival.

To do so the exhibition will exhibit examples of millinery-prepared bird skins and feathered hats from the University of Alberta Clothing and Textiles Collection alongside the millinery guides and craft tools that made the making of such ‘feather fashions’ possible in domestic settings. These will then be juxtaposed with the display of archival photographs of women working in metropolitan ‘plumage sweatshops’ and ‘murderous millinery’ campaign materials from the Audubon Society to expose the dark side of the mass production of feathered garments.

Girls 'willowing' feathers in a plumage sweatshop in NY c. 1910. Photograph L. W. Hine

A further dimension to the exhibition will be the installation of artworks by contemporary artists whose work in some way explores complex human-avian relations associated with the plumage trade and taxidermy practice, including Count Raggi’s Bird and Biography of a Lie by Kate Foster and Kingfisher by Andrea Roe.

BIOGRAPHY OF A LIE: Egret/Chapeaux, Kate Foster.

I am presently working on a online exhibition and blog to accompany the exhibition which opens May 17th 2011… so watch this space as I’ll keep you posted on its development!

The website is now live. Visit:

This entry was posted in Cultural Geography, Curation as Spatial Practice, Curatorial Concerns, Exhibitions, Experimental Geographies, Geographer-artists and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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