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

New and exciting terrain!

While it’s great working on one particular avenue of thought, and exploring and refining it until you really feel you’ve mined the issue in full, there’s nothing quite like moving on to a new topic!

Yep, I’m a thrill-seeker alright! So you can imagine my excitement when my PhD supervisor agreed that I was ready to move on to the next section of my thesis, which is all about the horse as a symbol in Australian culture.

In recent months I have been dealing with ideas about the horse as heritage, and have moved away from the museum context and the centrality of the Object, within which my thesis was originally conceived. However, in this next section of research the content demands a return to the museum. After all, in terms of material culture, the horse occupies a very interesting position in museum collections, where the objects relating to it are very frequently also made from it; these objects are simultaneously both THINGS and representations of SENTIENCE.

Think of Phar Lap, in many ways Australia’s ultimate equine symbol. His heart, such a visceral object, is not exhibited alongside other visceral objects, but with images of him as a whole horse. His parts stand for the whole, and that whole itself stands for something we believe to be quintessentially Australian. He is portrayed as a “battler”, a figure of hope, and a hero. He is no longer a horse – he has become a symbol of something more. I want to dig deeper into the strange nature of many such equine objects, and  to explore the role the museum plays in re-framing horses as symbols.

Sitting down at my laptop, with a new Word document opened in front of me, I quickly bash out a range of questions I want to frame the next section of my research around, and feel that familiar thrill of a clean slate, an open road – a new research beginning!

 

Horse 12: an unnamed hero

Just a quick post this week, regarding an object in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum. It seems Australian museums are not the only ones partial to a commemorative horse hoof, though the story behind the hoof of Horse 12 is somewhat more unusual than most!

You see, Horse 12 was part of the District of Columbia Fire Department, in Washington DC (presumably it was not the practice of the Fire Department to name their steeds, merely to number them). One night in March 1890, Horse 12 and his companion in the traces (Horse 11? Horse 13?) were delivering the fire hose to the site of a fire, when they collided with another Fire Department vehicle (also horse-drawn), this one carrying the steam engine.

With no one apparently injured, the two vehicles proceeded to the site of the fire, almost a mile away. By the time they arrived, however, Horse 12 was limping badly, and pulled up lame. Upon investigation, the driver of the hose cart realised that Horse 12 was MISSING HIS ENTIRE LEFT REAR HOOF! The poor yet undoubtedly noble beast had continued on in his duty, despite missing an entire (and rather essential!) appendage. Horse 12 was promptly euthanised, though according to the Smithsonian it was ‘through the tears of attending fire-fighter and policemen’ [1] that this occurred.

The cauterized hoof of Horse 12, which appears to have been ripped from its shoe as well as his leg, is now held by the Smithsonian Museum. At some point it was coated with black enamel, making it somewhat less horrific to behold, yet the violence with which it was wrenched off is still very evident in the twisted shoe and bent nails.

The hoof of Horse 12. Taken from the website of the Smithsonian, photo by Richard W. Strauss

The hoof of Horse 12. Taken from the website of the Smithsonian, photo by Richard W. Strauss

You can read more about this object on the Smithsonian’s website.

REFERENCE:

[1] ‘O Say Can You See: Stories from the National Museum of American History’, accessed 4 May 2015  http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/hoof-fire-horse-number-12

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!

Phar Lap: from racecourse to reliquary

I just got a reminder from WordPress that I’ve fallen behind my blogging schedule, which usually has me posting on Wednesdays. This week has been a bit hectic, so I’m going to take a cheeky shortcut, and instead of writing an original post I’m going to link you to an article I published last year, titled Phar Lap: from racecourse to reliquary. It appeared in ReCollections, vol. 8 no. 1, and the full text is available online.

I hope you enjoy it, and I’ll be back to the regular posting schedule next week!