In 1880, St. Albans public library held a Conversazione, an exhibition of curiosities that became the predecessor to St. Albans museum. With the museum now closed for renovation, artist Lyndall Phelps has joined with its conservators to revive some of the original collection at locations around Hertfordshire, as part of a pop-up museum that also features her own work. On exhibition stands designed in collaboration with students at the University of Hertfordshire, Phelps’ collection, which she has entitled A Curious Conversation, is touring local venues including the St. Albans Cathedral, St. Albans Town Hall, The Maltings, St. Paul’s Church Hall, and St. Julian’s Church Hall, with a different selection of exhibits at each location.
Though her aim is partly to make the St. Albans’ Museum collection available while the museum is closed, Phelps is also interested in reviving some of the missing objects that were on display in the 1880 exhibition. Working from a list of artefacts on display at the Conversazione, Phelps displays artefacts that remain in the museum’s collection alongside objects that she has made and collected to fill gaps left by objects missing from the list. The artefacts are divided into four main categories – fine art, social history, archaeology, and natural history – all categories that were recognised in the original Conversazione collection.
All of the works that Phelps created herself were directly inspired by, but not always identical to, objects on the list. The list contains no images, and the written descriptions are short and sometimes vague. Phelps has taken advantage of this lack of detail by exercising her creativity, adhering to the description in part, but knowingly diverging from the likely form or design that the listed objects would have taken. Where the list describes fern specimens, she has traced the silhouettes of pressed plants in the Cambridge University botanical collection, and screen-printed them in gold. Where the list describes various cloth items, ranging from scarfs to bags, she has decided “to show the fabric rather than the object”, and has framed a selection of fabric “representing other cultures”, including sari silk and shibori dyed cloth.
Where the list describes “embroidery on perforated card”, Phelps has diverged from the European, floral patterns that would have most likely adorned the original cards, and instead opted to for abstract patterns, and has displayed the cards next to some tribal jewelry, also her own work. This decision arose from her desire to challenge herself. “Ethnographic pieces [like these] involve problem solving” and provide a welcome excuse to learn new craft skills.
Phelps views her role as curator, collector, and designer, as well as artist. “Because of the nature of the objects [on the list] it made more sense to collect them than to make them,” she explains. There are a significant number of religious items on the list, and she felt that these might be best represented by collections of contemporary objects that reflect the continuation of established religious practices, including saints medals and reproduction Medieval pilgrim badges.
All of these artefacts are displayed on a stand of Phelps’ own design, inspired by a collaboration with students on the Interior Architecture and Design programme at UH. It was particularly important for Phelps that the stand did not resemble a wall from the St. Albans Museum. She has avoided white, and, where possible, used voids and transparent materials so that the audience is encouraged to “see through” the stand to the environment in which it is sited. The display is modular, so that it can be reconfigured to fit different spaces. “I’m used to making work that is physically related to a site or context,” she says, and hopes that the stand will feel integrated into each location. “I wanted it to feel like a display [that belongs] in each location, not like we had brought in a piece of the museum.”
Where the exhibition features genuine artefacts from the museum collection, she has chosen to display them in archival boxes, “presented as they were stored”. Working with the museum’s conservators she has become fascinated by how they concerned themselves primarily with the “structural quality” of the objects in their care. This approach has taught Phelps “to look at objects in a different way, not just as visual objects, but as structures” that must be supported and protected in very particular ways.
Housing the objects in protective cases and sleeves, Phelps aims to allow audiences an insight into how the objects are protected for storage and transit, illustrating the “hidden, background processes” of museology. The white foam, with recesses cut to match the shape of the objects that they protect, the labels and identification numbers that are normally hidden from view, and the ribbons that secure objects in place, are as important a part of Phelps’ display as the artefacts themselves. Prints are unframed, so that the “scrappily cut” edges of the paper are visible, revealing “the honesty of the object”. This, feels Phelps, is far more interesting than the “beautified” displays that are presented in the museum. These references carry through to Phelps’ own works, which are mounted on card of the same grey colour as the museum’s archival boxes.
If you missed A Curious Conversation at the UH Gallery, you can see it at any of its future venues:
- 21 June, St Albans Hospital
- 13 July, St Paul’s Church, Fleetville
- 15 July, the Maltings, St Albans
- 26 August, St Albans Cathedral
- 7 October, St Julian’s Church
With thanks to Eva Sopeoglou and UH Level 5 Interior Architecture Design students for their contribution to the research and development phase of the design of ‘A Curious Conversation’.