In defence of public collections

Yesterday, Victorian auction house  Mossgreen auctioned off a large private collection of Phar Lap memorabilia, consisting mostly of race programs for events the horse competed in. The collector is an American named Gary Madeiros. Though he is portrayed as a sports fan, he is also acknowledged to be a former stockbroker who “knows how to accumulate and monetise.” [1]

Madeiros assiduously collected the Phar Lap material, writing to race clubs in Australia, and buying the last item in his collection, Phar Lap’s Agua Caliente race book, from the owner of a bar in “not the nicest neighbourhood” of San Francisco 5 years ago.[2] Now, the collection is valued at over $150,000,[3] though it was not being sold as a collection. Instead, every one of the 28 race programs was auctioned off separately. This, according to Mossgreen’s Max Williamson, is “to try and get them to collectors rather than museums.” [4]

Really? Why? What’s the objection to such objects going to museums? Of course the hard fiscal reality is that the greatest amount of cash will be realised by selling such items individually, and targeting wealthy private collectors rather than cash-strapped public institutions. But the above statement makes it sound like it is somehow morally preferable for these items to go into private hands, as though museums are the lesser choice.

This baffles me. Sold to private collectors, these socially and historically significant items will be squirelled away, enjoyed exclusively by those with the wealth to own them. Or perhaps they will go into a bank vault somewhere, where the next canny investor, fully cognisant that time will only increase their worth, sees them as a sound investment. This, of course, is completely anathema to the spirit of the museum. While it is true that only around 5% of a museum’s collection can ever be displayed at any one time, for reasons including space restrictions, resourcing, and conservation concerns, as public institutions museum collections are always available to their stakeholders – that is, the public – for research, even when not on display.

In rare instances (such as that of Phar Lap’s heart at the National Museum of Australia, and his hide at the Melbourne Museum), some objects that are held in such high regard by this public are retained on perpetual display in spite of what might be regarded best-practice conservation measures, simply because these objects are too important, and too well-loved, to ever be taken off exhibit.

Imagine if, at Phar Lap’s death, instead of Harry Telford’s donation of the heart to the Australian Institute of Anatomy, or David Davis’s donation of the hide to National Museum of Victoria, these objects had been disdainfully withheld, and alternately been put into the hands of the highest bidder, disappearing into private collections? Do we imagine for one second that these iconic objects would be as accessible to Australians as they are today? As they have been for almost a century?

I understand someone’s desire to collect as an investment, and to reap the financial rewards of their collection. It’s what the art market is founded upon, after all. But I also strongly object to any intimation that historically significant material disappearing out of  the public sphere, unavailable for public access, is somehow preferable to its acquisition by a museum. Not for the material itself, and certainly not for Australian society more broadly. The only people to benefit in these scenarios are the investors who are selling, and the increased profit margins of the auction houses.

REFERENCES:

Chris Johnston, “Phar Lap ‘stuff’ worth $150,000, and climbing,” the age online, 7 May 2016, accessed 10 May 2016 http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/the-phar-lap-stuff-worth-150000-and-climbing-20160506-goo6xs.html

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

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Another Horse exhibition

We recently travelled to Melbourne, in part to see The Horse exhibition at the NGV. This exhibition holds a vast array of objects and images, displayed across three rooms and delineated loosely by theme. Ultimately, it was an exhibition featuring pretty pictures of horses, with little to no critical content.

IMG_8614

The first room of the Horse exhibition, NGV

For me, the first section, on “Myth, legend, and miracle”, was the strongest, possibly because the theme is so clearly articulated in the works. While the thematic structure here was strong, this first room also incorporated the greatest diversity of material, from the tiniest Wedgwood vase….

Tiny Wedgwood vase, c. 1880

Tiny Wedgwood vase, c. 1880

…to a 20 metre depiction of the Duke of Wellingtons funeral that ran the length of the room (for those interested Copenhagen predeceased the Duke, so the horse that is depicted in this scroll as ‘The Duke’s Horse’ is not Copenhagen).

Depiction of the funeral procession of the Duke of Wellington, 1850s

Depiction of the funeral procession of the Duke of Wellington, 1850s

It also included a range of religious depictions of the horse, from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to St George, and, outside the Christian canon, a variety of images from India, Iran, and Asia.

"Kalki, the tenth incarnation or avatara of Vishnu", 1830s, Tamil

“Kalki, the tenth incarnation or avatara of Vishnu”, 1830s, Tamil

The seven-headed horse of the Sun God Surya, 19th century, India

Detail, showing the seven-headed horse of the Sun God Surya, 19th century, India

Albrecht Durer, "St George slaying the dragon," c. 1500s

Albrecht Durer’s depiction of St George slaying the dragon, c. 1500s

It was good to see the horse framed as an animal of symbolic power across a number of cultures and civilisations. My head is so set within the Australian context that it’s easy to forget that we are not the only ones who worship the horse!

Objects ranging froan Iranian cheekpiece c. 700 BCE (top left) to 20th century Mexican stirrups (below, left and right)

Objects ranging from an Iranian cheekpiece c. 700 BCE (top left) to 20th century Mexican stirrups (below, left and right)

Having said this, the exhibition also included the obligatory Drizabone and Akubra. It was at around this point that I felt the show lost some of its focus, and devolved into a sequence of separate items whose only unifying theme was the horse,  which for me wasn’t enough to create cohesion.

Drizabone and Akubra

Drizabone and Akubra

However there was one highlight within this, and that was an artwork by Angelina Pwerl Ngal, which addressed the role that horses played in the dispossession of Australia’s first people. This is a significant topic and could have been addressed in greater detail, especially as the Aboriginal voice was notably absent from the section that dealt with humanity’s oldest myths and legends relating to the horse. This absence is in itself telling, and could have done with some more fleshing out.

Angelina Pwerl Ngal, "Whitefella killing blackfella", 1998

Angelina Pwerl Ngal, “Whitefella killing blackfella”, 1998

Detail

Detail from “Whitefella killing blackfella”

The Australian context featured within the latter part of the exhibition, with a heavy focus on horse racing (not surprising, given one of the sponsors is Racing Victoria, and the exhibition coincides with the Spring Racing Carnival here in Melbourne). The Melbourne Cup believed to have once been won by Phar Lap is on display, as is this gem, which I have read of and written about so often that it was lovely to see it at last:

Eric Thake, "Gallery Director, or, This Way To Phar Lap," 1954

Eric Thake, “Gallery Director, or, This Way To Phar Lap,” 1954

I was, however disappointed that “Phar Lap before the Chariot of the Sun” was not also on display! Speaking of Phar Lap, footage of the 1930 Melbourne Cup is projected upon part of one wall, and you can see the horse himself thundering down the straight and then returning to the scales. Having written about Phar Lap being divorced from his horse-ness, this was actually a marvellous sight, and I watched the three-and-a-half-minute reel play through a couple of times, wanting to see it again and again.

All of the horse-pictures! Among them is footage of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, projected onto the wall.

All of the horse-pictures! Among them is footage of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, projected onto the wall.

Ultimately, this exhibition struck me as something of a filler, not too serious, and an easy way to fill the temporary galleries for a few months. I have no doubt that it is the tip of the iceberg as far as depictions of horses in the NGV collection goes, however it could have easily been strengthened by a more focused approach to the latter sections of the exhibition, and a greater emphasis on Australia beyond the world of horse racing.

Now you see it… but what if you don’t?

Now you see it… but what if you don’t?

As I was forging ahead with my survey late last year, contacting various collecting institutions to see what, if any, horse remains they might have in their collections, I received a phone call that stopped me in my tracks, and brought home to me the limitations of my research scope.

It’s all well and good to look at objects and their associated interpretation – but what if there was a relevant object that now no longer exists?  Because this was exactly the situation being described to me by the Curator of the Victoria Police Museum, Sergeant Terry Claven.

During the 1970s, one of the most popular members of Victoria’s police force was a big grey gelding called Gendarme. Gendarme, along with his human partner Sergeant Alex Tassell, could be seen at any number of occasions on Melbourne’s streets, including the anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam protests of the early 70s. The two also did less fraught work, participating in a number of Moomba parades, and appearing in the Myer toy department during Police Week. [1]

Gendarme and Sergeant Alex Tassell

Gendarme and Sergeant Alex Tassell Source: http://vichorse.com/forum/index.php?t=msg&goto=1783803&

For almost two decades, Tassell and Gendarme, who Tassell trained as a drum horse for the police band, were a common sight. The horse’s popularity was, believe it or not, astronomical. He starred in his own children’s book series, with titles Gendarme the Police Horse and Gendarme at Work each selling over 25,000 copies [2], received the Victoria Police Chief Commissioner’s Award, was given the Key to the City of Melbourne, and, upon his retirement in 1980, had a public farewell at Government House!

Sadly Gendarme was euthanised shortly after he retired, in September 1980. [3]  However, as with other popular equine figures in Australian history, death was no barrier to his posterity. As described in a piece for the Herald, Gendarme would ‘[receive] the same honour as the great Australian race horse Phar Lap, and [be] stuffed.’ [4] It’s worth noting here that Gendarme seems to be the only other horse besides Phar Lap to have been preserved in this way, a true testament to his popularity.

The taxidermic process was done by Brent Hall, who worked professionally as a Preparator with Museum Victoria and ran a home taxidermy business in Glen Iris. [6] It took nine months and cost $8000 [5], but in June 1981 the great horse was once again able to greet the public, unveiled in a ceremony at Dandenong Town Hall. Sargeant Tassell himself was impressed at the way Gendarme had been captured through taxidermy. “The head is to a tee and they’ve done a really good job on the rest, even down to the bumps and scars he received over his long career”, Tassell was quoted as saying at the time. [7]

Unfortunately, time was not kind to the mount, and at some point its deterioration meant that it had to be destroyed. So now I have to ask myself, given the scope of my research, how do I talk about this significant horse, without anything to tell his story through? As those associated with Gendarme pass away, the horse’s story, and his significance, are also lost. Tassell himself passed away in 2008, preceded by the last of the Gendarmes (there were ultimately five horses who went by the name, though I believe it was only Gendarme I that was mounted and displayed). [8]

At the time of the newly-mounted horse’s unveiling, the prevailing opinion was that Gendarme was so popular that he was bound ‘to be remembered for many years to come’ [9], yet this has not been the case. Despite my research interest, I had not come across Gendarme’s name prior to contacting the Victoria Police Museum. Which begs us to ask of that other most famous taxidermied horse – if all Phar Lap’s remains were to suddenly disappear from public view, how long would he remain in the public consciousness?

In my opinion, it would be a generation, two at most. And that, right there, is what lies at the heart of my research – that the stories we tell about these horses, and about ourselves as Australians, are so tied to their physical remains that without them, the stories would disappear. While we might assume that a horse’s significance will continue to have a historical impact even after their death, the truth appears to be that, without material culture, horses do vanish from history.  No matter how significant we think the horse is today, he’ll be eclipsed tomorrow – unless he remains in the public imagination through ongoing exhibition and display.

REFERENCES:

[1] Michael Hast, ‘Sergeant Alex Tassell is Melburnian of the Year,’ Melburnian (no date), 11.

[2] Geoff Wilkinson, ‘Cop who rode into history,’ Herald Sun 24 December 2008, accessed 18 March 2015 http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/cop-who-rode-into-history/story-e6frf7kx-1111118398490

[3] Ian Brown, ‘Gendarme stands proud for posterity,’ Herald 11 June 1981 (no page reference).

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Brent Hall obituary, Nautilus vol 6 issue 3, 2009.

[7] Ian Brown, ‘Gendarme stands proud for posterity,’ Herald 11 June 1981 (no page reference).

[8] ‘Vale Alex Tassell,’ The Police Association Journal February 2009, p.23.

[9] ‘Beat the Drum Slowly,’ [no publication name] June 1981, p.18.

A world apart: the difference between Things and Objects

My thesis has recently been re-invigorated after a ‘change in management’, and I find myself at last, after almost two years as a PhD student, approaching the beast that is the Literature Review. I don’t know why I find it so daunting – possibly it’s because all my peers got theirs done and dusted years ago, so it’s come to symbolise all that I haven’t done. But, for that same reason, I’m also quite excited by the challenge that it represents.

My reading in recent days has gone back to ‘first principles’, in considering the idea of objects. Objects are distinctly different to Things, not just in the museum context, but across academic disciplines. In his ground-breaking article ‘Thing Theory’, cultural theorist and academic Bill Brown writes that “we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things.”[1] This certainly describes the way that museum objects are generally interpreted, particularly in the social history context.

Brown sees human subjects using material objects; a car, a stove, a hammer. But it is when these objects stop functioning that, according to Brown, an Object becomes a Thing. The transition, from Object to Thing, is demarcated by a shift in the subject-object relationship. [2]  In some ways this is actually the complete opposite of how we might think of the museum acquisition process; often a Thing does not become a (museum) Object until it has stopped being used; its ‘useful’ life ends, and its museum life begins.

So, for my purposes, it is not useful to place Things in opposition to Objects. The subject/object spectrum, on the other hand, is an interesting one – particularly in the context of my own area of research. This dichotomous positioning becomes blurred when you consider objects that are made from subjects, for example the candlesticks made from a racehorse’s cannon bones. In this case, the item is both object (candlesticks), and subject (the racehorse named Quiz).

Such notions both relate to, and are distinct from (how will be discussed in a moment), ideas in recent museology scholarship regarding the ‘agency’ of objects. Drawn from actor-network theory, such discussions in the museum context centre around how an object ‘speaks’ to audiences. While I have not read widely on this issue (yet), I am minded of Claire Pettitt’s caution that “[w]hen we make things speak we have to be aware of the vanity of our ventriloquism, and the desire that it betrays in us to hear them talk.” [3] Museologist and curator Samuel J.M.M. Alberti is also cautious about ascribing agency to objects, however he does acknowledge there are some insights to be had from such discussions. ‘We are looking from the standpoint of the object, but we are looking at people’ [4].

This has led me to conceive a second axis, which positions Things and Sentients at opposite ends of a spectrum. How often were you told when young, perhaps in admonishment for behaving cruelly to another, ‘You can’t treat people like they are things!’ (Or was that just me?!). I think bringing the two axes together, Subject/Object and Thing/Sentient, creates a useful framework for thinking through many of the fields I am interested in – animal studies, museology, public history, and taxidermy and the ‘afterlives’ of animals.

These ideas are very much in their nascent phase, but as always I enjoy mulling them over here on the blog. Speaking of which, today marks one year of posting! Happy birthday blog! Perhaps I could just submit the last 12 months’ worth of posts and call it a Lit Review?

REFERENCES

[1] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28 (2001): 4.

[2] ibid

[3] Claire Pettitt, “Response” to Simon Schaffer, “Thinking (through) Things.” Paper presented at The Location of Knowledge conference, University of Cambridge, 8 March 2013. Youtube recording viewed 2 March 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BAZO9AWCwk

[4] Samuel J. M. M. Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis vol. 96 no. 4 (2005):561.

Object lessons

As regular readers would be aware, part of my PhD research involves a survey of museum objects that are made from parts of the horse. It seems a strange idiosyncrasy of our love of this animal, that when those who are highly prized pass on their remains are often fashioned into objects, which subsequently enter our museums and galleries.

This is particularly true with racehorses, and Phar Lap is perhaps the best known example, with his mounted hide at the Melbourne Museum, his heart on display at the National Museum of Australia, and his skeleton at Te Papa Tongarewa, in New Zealand. But there are many other such objects, and recently my survey turned up another intriguing example. Part of the Museum of Old and New Art State Collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, these two candlesticks are quite astonishing, both for their fine craftsmanship, and their provenance.

Image of the candlesticks, including the inscription on the base. Copyright Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Image of the candlesticks, including the inscription on the base. Copyright Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

The long straight stem of these candlesticks is not made from the usual silver or other metal, but comes from the cannon (or metacarpal) bones of a nineteenth-century racehorse named Quiz. The remainder is made from turned Huon pine, a timber unique to Tasmania. According to the website 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930, the ‘mouldings and incisions [are] typical of smaller turned artefacts of the nineteenth century. [They] reference the mouldings and details of classical architecture.’ [1]

The underside of one of the candlesticks is inscribed in black ink with the text ‘Canon bones of the horse Quiz the Property of Mr W.H. Mence who was killed on the Brighton racecourse whilst running in the Town plate’. This inscription is grammatically ambiguous, and from an animal studies perspective begs the question, was it the canon bones, or the horse himself, who are here referred to as ‘the property’ of Mence?

The 1854 Hobart Town Plate was a weight-for-age race, meaning horses carried a certain weight according to their age – in this case, three-year-olds carried seven stone 12 pounds (50kg), four-year-olds carried eight stone 12 pounds (56 kg), etc, up to horses aged six and over, who had to carry nine stone 10 pounds (61.6 kilos!). The race was contested over a distance of 4 miles – that is almost six and a half kilometers, a huge distance. Quiz, being described as ‘aged’ (ie he was over six years old) [2], had to carry the full weight.

There were only three horses running, and the accident that led to Quiz’s death was apparently caused when the horse of one of the spectators, a Mr Waters, took off with him on board and joined the field. The horse and rider contacted Quiz, and, it was reported by both The Courier and the Colonial Times, Quiz was killed instantly [3]. This fact William Mence, the stallion’s owner and jockey*, was quick to correct. Writing to The Courier, Mence states that, following the contact between Quiz and Waters’ horse, ‘I was thrown into the air with great violence from the buck of that noble animal, who was caught by a gentleman on the ground. I led him from the fatal spot, injured and exhausted as I was, with the blood gushing through his nostrils; with difficulty he reached his stable, and fell down dead. The cause was the bursting of a main artery, which may be more fully explained before a higher tribunal.’ [4] Mence closes his account with the statement that the horse’s death represents a loss to him of over one thousand pounds. [5]

There is no information regarding the process by which Quiz went from racehorse to candlesticks, but in outlining the history of these objects there is speculation that the choice of the canon bones for this purpose was a deliberate one. According to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, ‘[b]ecause the cannon bones bear a considerable part of the horse’s weight while it is in motion, their proportions are important indicators of breeding quality. Both this fact and the size and straightness of the bones may have influenced the decision to commemorate the horse in this unusual way.’ [6]

Those familiar with racing memorabilia will know that the horse hoof inkwell (or pincushion, or ashtray) is a not uncommon form of commemoration, possibly for the same reason as those outlined above – when galloping there is a split second where a horse places all it’s weight on one hoof, hence the symbolic importance of the hoof itself. However, these candlesticks are really quite unique. I can’t help but wonder about their creation, and why Mence (if it was indeed Mence) chose to re-purpose his horse in this way.

There is in such objects the added element of the (very literal) objectification of the horse. In his letter to the editor, Mence emphasizes the monetary value of the horse several times. Quiz’s transition from prized racehorse to idiosychratic decorative arts object/s illustrates the commodification of the horse within society.

The trend for turning animals-into-objects continued well into the twentieth century. This form of commemoration appears to have gone out of favour at the same time as the horse gave way to the automobile. This fact is actually highly significant. While from a contemporary animal studies perspective we might view the re-purposing of an animal into an object as somewhat disrespectful, it is no accident that the practice died out as the ubiquitousness of the horse faded, replaced on the land and in the streets by machines. In this sense, while we may not see it this way today, perhaps the creation of objects such as the candlesticks really was a mark of respect.

* It was not unusual in the colonial period for a horse’s owner to also serve as the jockey when racing.

REFERENCES:

[1] ‘Pair of candlesticks’, 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930 website, accessed 25 February 2015 http://static.tmag.tas.gov.au/decorativeart/objects/misc/P2006.69/index.html

[2] ‘Brighton Races,’ The Courier 3 November 1854, p. 2.

[3] ibid; ‘Local intelligence: Accident at the races,’ Colonial Times 4 November 1854, p.3.

[4] ‘The death of “Quiz”,’ The Courier 7 November 1854, p.2.

[5] ibid

[6] ‘Pair of candlesticks’, 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930 website, accessed 25 February 2015 http://static.tmag.tas.gov.au/decorativeart/objects/misc/P2006.69/index.html

Equine remains in collections: my PhD survey

So, let’s take a detour from some of the intellectual and thematic terrain we’ve been pursuing thus far on the blog, and take a moment to focus instead on the nitty-gritty. By nitty-gritty I mean “Getting the PhD done” stuff. I know I don’t talk too much about the practical aspects of my PhD, but since I’m clean out of ideas for the blog right now I thought I’d give you a little insight into what I’m working on today.

As part of my PhD I want to get a good idea of exactly WHAT sort of equine remains we have in collections across Australia, before I select and focus in on specific case studies. So to do this, I have decided to survey pretty much every likely collection in Australia! The survey is a two-part process. The first part involves contacting institutions (from the smallest to the biggest!) in order to ascertain if they hold any relevant material – examples include whole or parts of taxidermied horses, biological specimens, and decorative arts objects like horse-hoof inkwells and pin cushions (but not functional items such as hairbrushes or horse-hair stuffed furniture). The second part is the survey itself, which basically asks for a list of these objects, whether they have been exhibited, if so in what context, and for a brief statement of their significance.

I started rolling out phase one very recently, and the reason I am particularly excited about my survey today is that, after a string of “No, sorry, we don’t have anything like that in our collection” emails, I finally got a positive response! My husband, who has a Masters of Applied Statistics and is an all-round database wizard, helped me design* the survey tool, and when I told him today that I finally had somewhere to administer it, he panicked and said we needed to finesse it a bit more first. I actually think it’s petty amazing as it is – it does exactly what I want, and has way more structural flexibility than anything else I tried (including Survey Monkey, and the ANU’s own in-house electronic survey).

I am really looking forward to finding out what is out there, because at the moment it’s a bit of a mental blank canvas. Of course there’s the various bits of Phar Lap – heart and skin – as well as Sandy’s head at the War Memorial, Carbine’s skeleton at the Australian Racing Museum, and an assortment of horse-hoof inkwells that I know about, but I’m hoping that I might discover a lot more. Though I’m not holding my breath, because I may well discover that most of what else is out there is unprovenanced or undocumented, and therefore doesn’t contribute much to my research.

But for now, it’s exciting, not just because of what I might find, but because I feel like I have now actually embarked on the PhD proper!

 

* Actually the genius is all his!