Following on from my exhibition review of A Fine Possession: Jewellery and Identity at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Evans in order to find out a bit more about the process of designing the exhibition. Rebecca is an assistant curator at the MAAS museum and has also written for Worn Through in the past.
Sarah: Jewellery is such a huge conceptual topic for exhibition, and the space is brilliantly centered on nine key themes. Was this always the case? What sort of steps were involved in working out how to display such a huge collection of jewellery and adornment from all over the world and throughout various time periods?
Rebecca Evans: A fine possession includes jewellery from nearly every major public and private collection in Australia. The themes and the content were formed almost at the same time, especially when it came to some key objects- whole themes were formed around these objects.
The exhibition had from the beginning a strong split between historical and contemporary material. The historical section features themes which relate to core universal human experiences including love, loss, wealth, status, belief. These themes show how cultures from around the world and time used jewellery and adornment to signify, celebrate and memorialize key human experiences.
The contemporary section on the other hand shows how jewellery had been used conceptually by craftspeople since the 1970s to explore contemporary life. Issues of identity and climate change as well as the exploration of new materials and techniques are key to this section.
S: I particularly loved the way that clothing was included in the exhibition. What was the main motivator behind this? Was it to showcase the dress collection of the museum, to show the public how these items of jewellery fitted with the dress aesthetics of the period, or both?
RE: The motivation behind the inclusion of dress in the exhibition was to show how jewellery and adornment were worn on the body and are sometimes dress in itself in the case of the beaded ‘corset’ worn by men Dinka tribe of South Sudan. The inclusion of dress as well as historic paintings provides context for how jewellery was worn and portrayed in a particular period.
S: The intercultural aspect of the exhibition which brings together jewellery and artifacts from not only antiquity to present, but also from Asia, Africa, the Pacific and Europe, means that a great deal of items were loaned to the museum from other cultural institutions as well as private collectors in Australia. What’s the process behind this? How where these other items selected? Were they intended to compliment items in the MAAS collection, or to stand in for styles not owned by the museum? How does one go about finding and loaning objects from private collectors, particularly older items like the medieval rings in the exhibition?
RE: There are over 100 lenders in A fine possession and the exhibition draws on the collections of nearly every major public and private collection in Australia with the addition to the Royal Collection Trust. The process for selecting and securing loans depended largely on existing relationships with lenders. The curatorial team for this exhibition included curators with a range of specializations in Asian, Pacific, African, Indigenous Australian and European cultures, who have extensive networks with private collectors and public institutions. The objects were selected to complement the MAAS collection and to work within the thematic structure of the exhibition.
S: The exhibition has utilized digital media in the form of touch screens that allow the public to learn more about the items on display. There seems to be a general push in the museum industry to incorporate digital and sometimes even interactive media into their exhibitions. How important was it to have this as part of the display? What do you think (did you hope) this would bring to it?
RE: Small objects such as jewellery can be difficult to display alongside labels. Labels are often larger than many of the pieces of jewellery in the show and are visually distracting. The use of tablets in this exhibition means that we can tell the stories relating to the objects without interrupting the overall beauty of the display. We give space for visitors to first and foremost enjoy the aesthetic quality of each piece, to provoke and sense of awe before we provide historic context.
S: A whole section of the exhibition is reserved for modern designers and their works. How did you choose what modern designers to showcase?
RE: For this exhibition we selected contemporary makers from a range of backgrounds, both established and emerging, Australian and International. Most of the works in this section come from the MAAS permanent collection of contemporary jewellery and new acquisitions were chosen to complement the existing collection. In the selection of new acquisitions we were particularly interested in makers working with new materials and techniques, particularly 3D printing.
S: On a more personal note, as someone who worked on the exhibition, what came to be your favorite piece and why?
RE: My favorite object is the beautiful tiara [below] by contemporary Australian artist, Fiona Hall. Hall made this unique tiara in 1990, for friend and subject of her photographic work, artist and academic, Paula Dawson. This tiara is made from sardine cans carefully manipulated into the form of the xanthorrhoea plant. Hall’s exquisite technique combined with the beautiful form of the tiara is the reason it is my favorite part of the exhibition.
A Fine Possession runs until the 22 May 2016 at the MAAS museum in Sydney Australia. If you’re unable to get to the museum, the exhibition has an excellent website that showcases some of the items on display, as well as interviews with collectors.