Monday, January 31, 2011

Into the void

The major exhibition of Crown Lynn that has just opened at the Wellington City Gallery is terrific. The huge number of items include the Shufflebottoms, Murrays and Smiseks that helped us become modern and a gallery full of brown and kitsch things that tried to hold us back. The only problem is there isn’t a label to be seen. Is that a John Parker, an Ernie Shufflebottom or a Keith Murray? Are the strange shaped items really electrical conductors? Who was Mirek Smisek when he wasn’t working with Crown Lynn? What is the name of this series of ware or that one, and when was it made? All these questions and more go unanswered by this exhibition, and even the publication accompanying the show, although very interesting, does little to elucidate the individual objects on display. 

Ok, ok, labels can be a pain, but they are the key link between the audience and an object’s history and context. No history exhibition (and this is a history exhibition), no matter how well displayed, (and it is very well displayed) makes much sense without them. For visitors to leave without information to enrich, challenge or even contradict their personal aesthetic judgement is not good enough. There is also the whiff of a craft ghetto attitude here – it is inconceivable, for instance, that any exhibition of paintings or sculpture would be shown without labels that give at a minimum dates, names and material detail. The Crown Lynn objects deserve the same respect.

It was clear at the floor talks on Saturday that the collectors have an extraordinary depth of knowledge about every item in the show. The City Gallery needs to tap into this knowledge and share some of it with visitors. If the curators feel labels would spoil the design, room sheets would be fine. All exhibitions need to share basic information (or better still detailed information) if the audience is to leave with more than a superficial experience. Besides which, without this kind of record, the exhibition and the knowledge that it created dies the day it is taken down.

Image: Tom Clark, who transformed his family’s Auckland brick and pipe works into Crown Lynn, regularly travelled overseas to scout out new idea for the business. One of these ideas was inspired by the swan he brought back from the UK in his baggage and copied in the Crown Lynn factory. From the late 1940s through to at least 1973 the swans were produced in multiple colours and glazes. Source: Valerie Ringer Monk , Crown Lynn: a New Zealand Icon, Penguin, 2006